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The following is presented as part of The Columbian’s Opinion content, which offers a point of view in order to provoke thought and debate of civic issues. Opinions represent the viewpoint of the author. Unsigned editorials represent the consensus opinion of The Columbian’s editorial board, which operates independently of the news department.

In Our View: Cost of education must be part of loan debate

The Columbian
Published: April 11, 2024, 6:03am

President Joe Biden’s latest effort to forgive some student loan debt should generate strident debate. There are good arguments to be made on both sides.

But at some point, a more consequential discussion needs to be held. The issue of college tuition and the role of publicly supported higher education will help define the future of the United States.

A year ago, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down Biden’s attempt to forgive the debt on student loans provided by the federal government. Now, the administration has announced a smaller loan-forgiveness program, hoping that a different approach will pass judicial muster. It would be available to people who now owe more than they originally borrowed (because of interest) or borrowers who have faced debts for at least 20 years. Other, more-targeted provisions also are included.

The reasons for the attempts are clear; as of last summer, the Federal Student Aid program estimated that 43.4 million recipients had $1.63 trillion in outstanding loans. That reportedly is the second-largest source of personal debt in the United States, behind only mortgages, and it can stifle the efforts of young adults to purchase homes or save for the future.

“This relief can be life-changing,” Biden said Monday. “Folks, I will never stop delivering student loan relief for hardworking Americans. … It’s for the good of our economy.”

Yet, the reasons for opposition to the plan also are clear. If students willfully entered into loan agreements, it is reasonable to expect them to pay those debts rather than transfer the burden to other taxpayers.

Sen. Bill Cassidy, R-La. and the top Republican on the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, said the proposal “does absolutely nothing to address the high cost of education that puts young people right back into debt.”

That speaks to the crux of the issue.

In September, U.S. News & World Report determined that in-state tuition and fees at public national universities (including the University of Washington and Washington State University) have increased 158 percent in the past 20 years; costs for private universities and two-year colleges have seen similar increases. Overall, inflation during that time increased 67 percent.

The primary driver of that increase has been a decline in public support for public institutions. The National Education Association reports: “Across the U.S., 32 states spent less on public colleges and universities in 2020 than in 2008, with an average decline of nearly $1,500 per student. As a result, students need to pay (and borrow) more.”

In one oft-cited example, the University of California system (including Berkeley and UCLA) offered free tuition for state residents until the mid-1970s. Since then, legislatures across the country have consistently reduced support for public universities, and the consequences have been evident. In her book “The Sum of Us,” author Heather McGhee writes: “The massive public investment wasn’t considered charity; an individual state saw a return of three to four dollars back for every dollar it invested in public colleges.”

A four-year degree is not the only path to a steady career. States also should invest in vocational training and various other educational paths. But as debate continues about student loan debt, at some point the conversation must focus on broader questions about the value of public education and how much our society is willing to invest in it.