We need Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s plan to forgive student loan debt and save middle class

Sen. Elizabeth Warren recently released a game-changing plan to confront America’s $1.5 trillion student debt crisis, a crisis that two-thirds of voters believe is threatening our economy.

Warren’s plan would cancel debt for more than 95% of the nearly 45 million Americans with student loan debt. And the plan’s investment in public higher education would ensure that we never end up in this opportunity-thwarting situation again.

For the millions of Americans graduating from college this month, the joy of this achievement is matched by anxiety over how they will pay their student loan debt. That is where Warren’s plan comes in — it gives the current generation a chance at financial health while prospectively enabling more people to access a degree and the opportunities that come with it, without facing a “debt sentence.”

The public largely supports the plan. A recent poll showed 64% of voters approve of Warren’s proposal and another showed that more than half of voters who have never even taken out student loans approve.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., in Philadelphia on May 13, 2019. (Photo: Matt Rourke/AP)

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But some critics of Warren’s plan have argued that it’s wasteful to provide student debt relief to professionals and those trying to make it in the middle class. The notion that teachers, nurses and other professionals are less burdened by student loan debt is flat-out wrong. Educators and healthcare workers who are expected or required to get advanced degrees have higher and higher unsustainable debt. For example, the average student loan for a master’s degree in education jumped 82% between 2002 and 2012, And one study found that those who earned a master’s in education had more student loan debt than those who earned an MBA.

Trump is making relief impossible

I lead a union of 1.7 million teachers, nurses and other public service workers. And I hear constantly from members about their student loan debt: new educators who can’t stay in the profession because they can’t afford to pay their loans and put food on the table on a teacher’s salary; experienced professionals who can’t retire because they’re still paying off their debt; teachers and nurses whose licenses are threatened because they’re in default; adjuncts with advanced degrees, a mountain of debt and poverty wages; and countless members who tell me they’ll be paying off their loans until they die.

It’s also worth noting that one of the few ways that currently exists to mitigate this crisis — the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program — has been completely sabotaged by President Trump, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos and big student loan companies like Navient. Warren’s plan would also bolster this program to ensure relief to those professionals who work to make a difference for others and whose debt isn’t otherwise completely canceled under her proposal.

Other critics of Warren’s plan have argued that it isn’t progressive enough or that we can’t afford it, or have even expressed the sentiment that since they had to go through the pain of paying off student loan debt, so should the current generation as well.

Critics don’t understand the problem

Aside from being cruel, these arguments simply misunderstand the draconian nature of the problem. Postsecondary education is essential to doing well in our ever-changing economy. College is the new high school, and just as we made a national commitment to free K-12 public education, we must now extend that commitment to higher education.

Warren’s plan treats college as a public good and ensures that a college degree really does offer a promise and a pathway to the middle class.

And the senator gets at the root cause of how we arrived at this crisis — massive disinvestment in higher education, often to fund tax cuts for the rich and corporations. Forty-one states still spend less on higher education than they did before 2008, as tuition and other expenses have continued to grow. To reverse this trend and fund our future, Warren wants to pay for this investment by taxing the super-rich.

Warren’s student debt and universal free college plan would be transformational — similar to the way the GI Bill completely altered Americans’ access to higher education. It is, quite simply, good policy, good for working- and middle-class Americans, and good for our economy. To those who argue otherwise, I’d say spend some time talking with America’s teachers, nurses and other public service workers, and come to our student debt clinics, where we help people navigate their debt; maybe you’ll change your tune.

Randi Weingarten is the president of the 1.7 million-member American Federation of Teachers. Follow her on Twitter: @rweingarten

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