When the Biden Administration announced Wednesday that it would cancel $10,000 of federal student loans for Americans making under $125,000 per year, and $20,000 for Pell Grant recipients at the same income level, the backlash was predictable. Critics, often older people who had gone to college before the 1980s, called the policy a giveaway to the college educated, and unfair to those who had paid their way through school.
While I was reporting my book, The Ones We’ve Been Waiting For, I spent months researching why the student debt crisis has hit younger generations so hard— and why many older Americans don’t seem to understand the unique financial predicament of millennials and Gen Z. One key reason is that college affordability has radically transformed over the last 50 years. Many of the older conservatives who are angry at the idea that taxpayers might pay for student loan forgiveness went to school at a time when the government was heavily subsidizing higher education, and therefore tuition was far less expensive. For them, working their way through school without debt was feasible; for modern millennials and Gen Z, it’s often financially impossible.
Senate Minority leader Mitch McConnell called Biden’s loan forgiveness plan “student loan socialism” and said it was a “slap in the face to every family who sacrificed to save for college.” But when McConnell graduated from the University of Louisville in 1964, annual tuition cost $330 (or roughly $2,500 when adjusted for inflation); today, it costs more than $12,000, a 380% increase. When House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, who called the policy a “debt transfer scam,” graduated from California State University, Bakersfield in 1989, tuition was less than $800; today, it’s more than $7,500, a 400% increase when adjusted for inflation. Nevada Senator Catherine Cortez Masto, a moderate Democrat who is running for re-election this year, told Axios she disagreed with the policy because “it doesn’t address the root problems” of college affordability; when Cortez Masto graduated from the University of Nevada in 1986, tuition was a little more than $1,000— today, it’s roughly three times as expensive.
And don’t forget Republican Senator Chuck Grassley, who called the policy “UNFAIR” on Twitter. He graduated from the University of Northern Iowa in 1955, when annual tuition cost roughly $159, or between $40 and $53 per quarter. Today, it costs more than $8,300, a nearly 500% increase even when adjusted for inflation.
The cost of college has continued to rise partly because state governments slashed higher education funding in the 1980s and 1990s, at exactly the moment when college was becoming a prerequisite for a well-paying job and participation in the global economy. Colorado lawmakers cut state funding for education 70% between 1980 and 2011, according to a report from the American Council on Education; South Carolina cut more than 66% of education funding during that same time, and Arizona cut 62%. More than half of Michigan State’s revenue came from state funding in 1987— by 2012, less than 20% did.
Meanwhile, the explosion of college applications (partly enabled by the Common App) meant that by the early 2000s, schools had to spend more to compete for the students they wanted to attend. As colleges and universities faced pressure to boost their “yield”—or the number of accepted students who enroll— they poured money into building fancy dorms and indoor pools, and hired thousands of administrators to handle everything from counseling to student life to athletic programs. Between 1987 and 2011, American colleges and universities hired more than 517,000 administrators and nonacademic staff— roughly 87 every day. This new spending, combined with the decline of state funding, helped lead the average tuition at four-year universities to roughly double from the early 1990s to the early 2020s, according to the College Board. In short: more and more young people were flooding into a higher education system that was getting less and less government funding.
Which meant that those younger generations picked up the bill. While Generation X has the highest average student loan balance at more than $45,000 per borrower, according to the Education Data Initiative, student debt affects the millennial generation most broadly: nearly 15 million millennials carry some student debt, more than any other generation, and 1/3 of all millennials have a student loan. The Biden Administration estimates the new policy could provide debt relief to up to 43 million Americans, and completely wipe out the remaining balance for roughly 20 million Americans.
Younger generations might say what’s really “unfair” is that many Baby Boomers and the Silent Generation had access to highly subsidized higher education with affordable tuition, while some millennials and Gen Z get just $10,000 of student loan forgiveness. Those calling Biden’s new policy “socialism” would do well to remember this: In 1987, a student at the University of Kansas could pay her tuition with a part-time minimum wage job and still have some left over for books and food. In 2016, a student working a minimum wage job would come up $38,000 short.
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