Wineke: student loan relief is a good thing

It is easy to make a case against President Biden’s decision to provide debt relief to millions of (mostly) young Americans who took out student loans.

The basic opposition argument is that “I paid back my loans and so should you.”

A more subtle argument is that those who did not attend college should not have to subsidize those who do. That may sound good, but it is actually a variation on the argument that childless people should not have to pay school taxes.

And, of course, those of us who did pay back student loans can resent those who get relief.

I am one of those who paid back his student loans. When I attended the University of Wisconsin, tuition was $110 a semester but, hey, a principle is a principle.

My question about all those arguments is why are we so angry about student loans when we shrug our shoulders at the countless billions of dollars the government spends to subsidize the wealthy?

I think it may go back to Stalin’s observation that one death is a tragedy and a million deaths is a statistic (though, apparently, there is no truth Stalin ever said that). I know the college kid next door, and I don’t want him having advantages I didn’t have. I don’t know the chief financial officer of Amazon.

We may also resent the idea – one proclaimed by higher education officials – that a college degree is a ticket to enhanced lifetime earnings.

Which is true, sort of. And this is why I support easing college financial burdens:

  • Not every college degree guarantees financial security
  • There is not a big job market for philosophers, historians, or musicians
  • There is, I guess, a good job market for pastors, but that market does not offer high salaries. Few churches can afford the services of a young seminary graduate who has $30,000 in student loans to pay off

One result of all this is that our higher education institutions are finding ever fewer students of the liberal arts, like history, that our country most needs as it faces the challenges of authoritarian politics, climate change, and resource depletion.

We do need the scientists and the computer designers to work out the technical answers to our challenges. But the challenges, themselves, tend to be political – we have to find ways to allocate resources and set priorities.

Subsidizing student loans may be an inefficient way to do that. Making college affordable would be a better way, I think. But it is the answer we now have and I support it.