How Biden Got Wrong About Penn, The Ivies, Student Debt, And America’s ‘College Problem’


A generation ago, when Bill Clinton wanted to prove to Central America that he was not a leftist cartoonist, he publicly criticized a previously obscure black hip-hop artist named Sista Souljah. Last week President Joe Biden – still keen to hang on to his centrist in good faith while pushing a predominantly progressive economic agenda – found his moment Sista Souljah in the hypothetical character of a presumably awake young Penn graduate demanding that taxpayers retroactively fund their elite education.

Indeed, the new 46th US president has abandoned the chief healer schtick and seemed to get up when a young woman at her meeting at city hall in Milwaukee CNN last week told her that US $ 1.7 trillion college debt is crushing the American dream and asked for at least $ 50,000 per student to canceling the government’s debt, asking it, “What will you do to make this happen?” ? “

“I won’t make it,” Biden responded briskly, then the president – who rejoiced during the 2020 campaign that he would be the first in the Oval Office. without Ivy League diploma since Ronald Reagan – pivoted to a tortured explanation of why. He tried to frame the $ 50,000 debt cancellation, argued by other leading Democrats, like “the idea of ​​me saying to a community, ‘I’m going to write off the debt, the billions of dollars in debt, for the people who went to Harvard, Yale, and Penn.’” Then he quickly turned away toward other laudable ideas like early childhood education and free community college, which – unlike federal debt action – would require action from our divided Congress.

Biden’s answer was full of calculations one refines over a 50-year career as an elected official, and the political logic is understandable. The University of Delaware graduate’s anti-elitist tone has always served him well, and fans of Biden, or realpolitik, would surely argue that the rejection of a key part of the progressive checklist provides political cover to the important leftist politics it’s most critical for his presidency: the $ 1.9 trillion coronavirus relief package.

But factually, morally, and on the basis of an issue that’s more important to the future of the American Dream than our new POTUS seems to realize, Biden got it wrong last Tuesday in Wisconsin – arguably, more badly than it hasn’t been about anything in the first month of a presidency seeking to undo the four-year stain of its distorted predecessor. If Biden – whose ability to learn, adapt and grow is a big part of why he became president at 78 – understands the nation’s “university problem” can determine whether his ultimate inheritance is mixed or transformative.

Let’s start by noting the enormous irony buried under Biden’s response, which reminded me Upton Sinclair’s famous line, “It’s hard to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on not understanding it.” Joe Biden may not hold an Ivy League sheepskin, but during his brief stint between vice-president and president he was paid over $ 900,000 by Penn for ill-defined work that helped inflate the University of Philadelphia and its public image. Now, one has to wonder if Ivy’s seduction of a future president has not also fostered a view of the status quo of higher education in America that does not align with the aspirations and real-world struggles of a future president. increasingly desperate middle class.

Here’s what people – but especially the President of the United States – need to know and understand about a student loan crisis that has come out of nowhere to become one of our major crosses to bear in the 21st century. First of all, the crushing burden of debt – that exceeded $ 30,000 for the average student in the late 2010s – up sharply since the turn of the millennium – has become the fundamental problem for many young Americans. It cripples their ability to do things that came easily for someone like Joe Biden after graduating from super low tuition fees University of Delaware in the 1960s – like buying a new house or getting married. The negative fallout on the U.S. economy affects everyone – not just the 37% who were able to earn a four-year degree.

“LEARN MORE: How Student Debt Cancellation Became the First Political Minefield of the Joe Biden Era | Will be bunch

But on Tuesday, Biden also gave Americans a grossly misleading picture of the nature of the loan crisis. In fact, experts say only 0.3% of federal student borrowers have attended Ivy League schools such as Harvard, Yale or Penn, those cited by Biden as motivating his thoughts against sweeping debt relief. Yes, their sticker cost is the highest, but there are only eight Ivies in the middle of the vast sea of ​​6,000 US colleges and universities. Additionally, the much-criticized admissions policies at these elite schools privilege the privileged classes who do not need to take out loans, and – aided by their large endowments – Ivies also tend to offer scholarships instead of loans to the low-income children they accept.

So who are the carriers of most of this 1.7 trillion dollar wheel? Many are the Joe Bidens of today – middle and working class kids hoping to get a head start in public universities that have raised tuition fees since the 1960s to levels unthinkable today. Schools like Delaware or Penn State haven’t always made the best decisions – what about those salaries of top administrators? – but they’ve also been squeezed by spending cuts from conservative state governments that appear to have plenty of money for prisons while struggling to attract new students by trying to offer Ivy-caliber equipment. The reality is that 49% of current borrowers attend public universities, and they tend to owe more than a young adult graduate from Penn.

But even worse, Biden’s town hall response showed little to no understanding of how the weight of student loans is declining. disproportionately over young black and brown Americans. Today, the average African American student is much more likely to take out loans than their white counterparts (86% vs. 59%) and graduates with $ 7,400 more in debt than their white peers. And their default rates are considerably higher – compounded by the financial and other burdens that make it more difficult to graduate from their four-year degree, or by the large numbers attracted by the exaggerated hype of for-profit fraudulent schools.

The conservative “personal responsibility” argument about university debt tends to crumble as the roots of the crisis are digged deeper. The truth is, America has put the psychological equivalent of a gun on the heads of our middle class youth and given them the choice: bet a college degree will result in a job lucrative enough to pay off. these usurious loans … zero future, entry into the labor market without a diploma. Millions took the bet, and for many it didn’t really pay off. Eliminating their debt isn’t just a boost to the economy, it’s a nod to restoring morality.

Having said that, I think Biden partially understands something politically that many of my left-wing friends who support massive debt relief seem blind to. If the president has used his executive power to write off $ 50,000 or more in individual college debt – but hasn’t done much or nothing else on the broader higher education issues the country is facing confronted with – the predictable outcry of those on the right could retain the rest of his agenda. In an increasingly divided nation between college-educated Democrats and the unqualified whites now at the heart of the GOP, the perception – again, based on misconceptions about who owns college debt – that Biden is rewarding his affluent voters could be a problem.

But what Biden and leftists who differ from the president need to understand is that the answer is to go bigger, not smaller. True leadership requires a big deal to essentially blow up the shattered university framework in America, with a massive plan offering not only complete debt relief, but also helping both prospective students (with a free program). and improved public universities and community colleges) and the millions of young people who, for various reasons, do not set foot on campus with extended training and internships.

America’s biggest problem in 2021 is bitterness and resentment at the heart of this right now is about who has the opportunity and who doesn’t – and who gets an unfettered college education. Resentment towards the educated elites of those who stray from the current system (yes, along with racism and other factors) drove the neo-fascism of Donald Trump and the January 6 insurgents. Most Americans know this, but we seem too shocked to start thinking about how to resolve the issues that have caused our division. That’s why in a time of overlapping crises like climate and infrastructure collapse, we may not find the social cohesion to resolve them without addressing “the college (and non-college) problem.” Which means we can’t afford not to try. We owe it not only to the millennials who got ripped off and our children’s future American dreams, but to all of us who are looking for ways to prevent a second American Civil War.

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