Charles Schumer, New York’s senior senator and the current Majority Leader, is not exactly what you would call a leftist agitator. Not in good faith, anyway. Schumer is a liberal, almost a liberal in the classic mold: business is okay, labor should be protected, consumers have a right to understand the products they purchase. But now, he’s staking one of the boldest positions in the mainstream Democratic Party: the federal government needs to cancel up to $50,000 of federal student loan debt for every single borrower in the country.
For a party that has long been hesitant to act on student debt, it’s a seismic shift. Under Schumer’s predecessor, Harry Reid, Democrats narrowly struck a deal with Republicans to stop loan interest rates from increasing and proclaimed that a big victory for students. The pie-in-the-sky vision of liberal fantasy White House idealism, The West Wing, proposed the bold plan of making college tuition payments tax deductible, a plan so depressingly uninspired that Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) pilfered it for his own proposal in 2015.
In a country where the average former college student carries just under $33,000 in loan debt, canceling any part of that debt is helpful. Schumer’s plan to cancel all of it is incredible.
President Biden wants to eliminate $10,000 in student loan debt for borrowers. Biden says Congress could pass legislation to make it happen, while Schumer says the president could direct the U.S. Department of Education to cancel $50,000 in student loan debt without congressional approval.
Biden’s undergraduate degree was conferred in 1965. At the time, the average cost of public universities in the U.S. was $1,379 per year (in 2020 dollars) including both tuition and room and board. A minimum wage worker, employed just ten hours per week in 1965, would earn $5,200 per year (in 2020 dollars).
Today’s average cost of attendance at public universities is $20,050 per year, and while most students receive some federal grants, students take an average of $8,500 per year in loans. In 2020 dollars, American students must take six times what President Biden paid his last year in college just in loans to pay for a college degree today.
While sometimes pitched as a debate between young and old, Americans over 65 hold $38 billion in student loans. In 2019, senior advocacy group AARP warned that student loan debt poses a risk to the retirement of borrows over the age of 50. 37% of borrowers over 65 defaulted on their debt in 2015, and while student loans are in forbearance due to the COVID-19 pandemic, without relief it is likely the number of defaulting borrowers over 65 will be higher in 2022.
Schumer says he believes that loan cancellation will be popular with Americans. “I told the president when we started on this that we were going to try to rally the American people behind this, to back him up when he decides, hopefully, to do it,” Schumer said Thursday.
Cover photo: lev radin / Shutterstock.com