This is a guest post by Richard Vague
Education of its citizens is among the most important safeguards for the growth and prosperity of a nation. In our country’s first century, we became increasingly distinguished from other countries by our broad literacy rates and the rapidly increasing sophistication and rigor of our education institutions.
Today, that beneficial gap has all but disappeared, and the imperative to regain our educational lead stand starkly before us.
Yet this is the exact time in which the cost of providing education has skyrocketed. Not-for-profit institutions that provide meaningful education have proliferated, with the unhappy result of increasing dependence on student loans to keep up.
Student debt now weighs like a millstone around the necks of millions of Americans — even years after they leave college. Among other harms, this debt defers home buying and household formation.
I’ve visited extensively across the United States in recent years to interview individuals and families about their financial lives and have been stunned by the pervasiveness of the student debt problem.
Student loan totals grimly skyrocketed to $1.7 trillion in 2020, up from $1 trillion in 2012, propelled by the rising cost of education. As recently as 2003, student loans totaled a much smaller $250 billion.
Of particular concern are institutions that are effectively “diploma mills,” or close to it. These generally are for-profit institutions that offer an easy path to a degree, but add little value in actually increasing the earnings potential of the student. Therefore, they are especially difficult to repay.
Finding an equitable path to forgive a substantial portion of student debt — what we might call debt amnesty, or “jubilee” — will boost the American economy, foster financial well-being, and help keep America competitive in a world where other nations, including China, have narrowed the gap with — and sometimes even surpassed — the U.S. in higher education attainment.
I propose that we introduce a new voluntary program that embraces debt forgiveness if participants do substantial volunteer work for a qualified not-for-profit organization, along with making several consecutive years’ worth of student loan payments.
Specifically, if a student debt holder has made payments for 90 consecutive months, and has also done volunteer community service for an approved government or not-for-profit organization for 800 hours, then the remaining balance of that student’s loan would be forgiven by the government.
I endorse this proposal rather than outright, across-the-board debt forgiveness because the question of fairness inescapably and forcibly shapes the policy environment around student loans. Americans who did sacrifice to pay their debts or saved and worked to pay for college often object to complete student debt forgiveness. As they see it, a federal debt relief program would, in effect, penalize those who worked more to pay for college, those who put off higher education until they could afford it, and those who reliably repaid their loans. It would ask the two-thirds of Americans who didn’t earn a college degree to help pick up the tab for many who did.
My policy approach would address the fairness issue by requiring a commitment from the borrower to make a meaningful, sustained contribution not only in the form of payments but also with time and labor in civic or charitable work.
Addressing fairness means that this policy has a realistic chance of being enacted. And I would rather have some form of debt relief now than wait for complete forgiveness that may never become enacted at all.
About the guest post author:
Richard Vague is Secretary of Banking and Securities for the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. Prior to his 2020 appointment, he was managing partner of Gabriel Investments. Previously, he was co-founder, chairman and CEO of Energy Plus, an electricity and natural gas company. Vague was also co-founder and CEO of two banks and founder of the economic data service Tychos. He currently chairs The Governor’s Woods Foundation, a nonprofit philanthropic organization. His new book is The Case for a Debt Jubilee (Polity Press, Nov. 22, 2021). Learn more at richardvague.com.