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Degrees of Debt

The Broken Promise of “College for Everyone”

The rise in undergraduate degrees was supposed to increase prosperity and cut economic inequality. Biden’s student debt relief plan, which is being challenged at the Supreme Court on Tuesday, proves otherwise.

Commencement cap says "hire me"
Spencer Platt/Getty Images

When the Supreme Court hears oral arguments in a pair of legal challenges to President Biden’s student debt relief plan on Tuesday, February 28, the justices will be weighing the question of whether the Biden administration overstepped its authority by wiping away the debt owed by tens of millions of Americans. Whatever the court’s decision, there is a more profound question at play than whether the six states that brought the suit will lose tax revenue should the plan be allowed to stand.

For decades, young Americans have been told that college is the only way to get ahead. Their degrees, they were assured, would pay for themselves. Yet the Biden administration’s debt relief effort is an acknowledgment that they have been misled. Going to college was supposed to lift everyone into the middle class, but what if it can’t?

For most of American history, the question of who higher education was for had a clear answer. College was something that only elites did—it was a privilege. In 1940, fewer than 5 percent of Americans had completed four years of college; as recently as the 1960s, less than 10 percent of the population had done so (among people of color, it would take another decade to hit that figure). When Bill Clinton took office in 1993, only 22 percent of adult Americans had completed a four-year college degree.

The bulk of the twentieth century, it turns out, was an age of high school diplomas. But in the years that followed, the political rhetoric around higher education began to rapidly shift. The so-called New Democrats—led by Bill Clinton and the Democratic Leadership Council—began to make the case that college was for everyone. Higher education, as they framed it, was the key to labor market competitiveness in the modern economy.

The idea that economic inequality could be addressed without the need for redistribution had appeal to Republicans, as well. “In order for our citizens to be able to seize the opportunities of a new era,” observed George W. Bush in an event celebrating the passage of the College Cost Reduction and Access Act, “they’re going to have to have skills that can be only learned through a postsecondary education.” Jobs in an increasingly global economy, Bush noted, were going to “require some sort of education after high school.” Republican and Democrat talking points were nearly indistinguishable on this topic. According to the Obama White House, earning a postsecondary degree was “no longer just a pathway to opportunity for a talented few”; instead, it had become “a prerequisite for the growing jobs of the new economy.”

By 2003, 27 percent of Americans had completed four years of college. Ten years later, that figure was up to 32 percent. And by 2021, 38 percent of Americans possessed a college diploma; 14 percent of them also had completed an advanced degree. Though Asian and white Americans earned degrees at much higher rates than Black and Hispanic/Latinx Americans, degree attainment nearly doubled among all racial and ethnic subgroups between 2000 and 2021.

The mantra was clear: College was a down payment on economic prosperity. Breathless cheerleading touted the million-dollar lifetime earnings gap between those with college degrees and those without. Rather than being a rarefied privilege for the advantaged, higher education was suddenly a means of economic uplift for everyone. To miss making the grade was to miss out on the best chance at the American dream.

The relentless refrain that college was an investment in future earnings had a significant impact on colleges and universities. Student interest in the liberal arts plunged, while business became the top major—larger than English, history, and philosophy combined. And the idea that higher education was a personal investment, rather than a public good, allowed state legislatures to further slash their contributions, even as the cost of college continued to rise.

The biggest impact, however, was on students. As it turned out, college often didn’t pay for itself. And for many borrowers, the debt they took on grew larger over time rather than smaller, due to compounding interest. As a result, millions of the Americans who followed the rules and did what they were told ended up saddled with loans that, even in bankruptcy, were extremely difficult to discharge. This figure includes those who took on debt to pay for occupational degrees in blue-collar trades like cosmetology and mechanics.

Even as diplomas often failed to deliver for college graduates, the mantra—and the mania—about higher education as a means of economic uplift continued. Americans who never went to college, or who didn’t leave with degrees, were effectively told that they were to blame for their own woes. After all, they hadn’t invested in themselves and weren’t prepared for a twenty-first-century economy.

In moving to forgive $10,000 per borrower, President Biden is conceding that college as remedy for economic inequality has been a bust, with profound social and economic consequences. While voters may be split over Biden’s proposed solution, they largely agree that the value of college has been oversold. According to a recent Federal Reserve survey, 56 percent of college graduates say the costs of their education outweigh the benefits. When Gallup polled parents, nearly half said they’d prefer that their children didn’t attend a four-year college after high school. Yet another poll found that by striking margins, Americans no longer believe that it is a priority for high schools to prepare students for college.

So what happens next? Policy leaders on both sides of the political spectrum have expressed interest in untethering well-paying jobs from college degrees. In Pennsylvania, for example, Democratic Governor Josh Shapiro recently eliminated degree requirements for 65,000 state jobs, joining another Democrat and two Republican governors who have made similar moves. But as Republicans rail against higher education as a site of “woke” indoctrination, the party seems increasingly set on steering young Americans away from college entirely.

While Ron DeSantis’s efforts to win over conservative parents by turning a Florida college into a right-wing paradise may be racking up headlines, red states are rapidly translating the party’s antagonism toward higher education into policies that usher high school students directly into the workforce—even rolling back child labor laws if they have to. In Indiana, where the number of students attending college has dropped by 13 percent since 2015, lawmakers are busy “reinventing” high school to prioritize work experience. And in Arkansas, a high-profile education reform package recently introduced by Governor Sarah Huckabee Sanders doesn’t mention college at all.

What does all of this mean for President Biden and his fellow Democrats? Steering students away from college altogether is also a losing proposition—not just because that’s where most job growth still tends to be, but also because higher education still has real value. The relatively privileged families that sent their children to college in prior eras weren’t making investments in human capital. Rather, they believed that America’s colleges and universities were places where young adults would discover their intellectual interests, broaden their understandings, and expand their worldviews. That value is hard to see when it requires mortgaging your economic future in return. But for millions of Americans, the opportunity to pursue higher education has always been about more than jobs.

Above all, Democrats can’t continue fostering the illusion that higher education is a cure-all. College diplomas aren’t the solution for inequality. That’s wishful thinking at its worst, because it distracts us from solutions that might actually narrow our deepening economic divide—solutions like a higher minimum wage, stronger labor unions, more progressive taxation, and bigger investments in children. Nor can Democrats continue to dump the cost of college onto the shoulders of young people out of the misguided belief that higher subsequent earnings will wipe away any debt they incur.

Thirty years ago, Democrats embraced education as the answer to stagnating wages and spiking inequality. But even as “You earn what you learn” became a mantra, the party abandoned the idea that higher education was a public good, instead shifting the burden of paying for school onto “consumers.” Now it has an opportunity to remedy both missteps.