In a town hall on Feb. 16, newly inaugurated President Joe Biden announced that he would buck the will of congressional Democrats by refusing to forgive up to $50,000 in student loan debt by executive order. Instead, the president insisted that he would only support debt forgiveness of up to $10,000 — despite the fact that the average graduate from university in 2019 had debt totaling over $30,000, as reported by U.S. News — and, most damningly, that Congress must pass the legislation to accomplish this $10,000 debt forgiveness. With the razor-thin Democratic majority in the Senate, it’s clear that debt forgiveness is unlikely to pass. Only one conclusion can be drawn from this conundrum: Joe Biden doesn’t care about student debt.
There has been an exorbitant rise in tuition costs over the last 50 years. Even since 2001, tuition costs have grown by 144 percent at private universities, 165 percent for out-of-state students at public universities and a startling 212 percent for in-state public tuition. The necessity of a college degree to stay afloat feels ever-present, even as stories emerge of jobs requiring a bachelor’s degree that do not pay above the living wage. Concerns about the necessity of higher education were present in one constituent’s question to the president: “The American dream is to succeed, but how can we fulfill that dream when debt is many people’s only option for a degree? We need student loan forgiveness beyond the potential $10,000 your administration has proposed. … What will you do to make that happen?”
Biden quipped in response: “I will not make that happen.” And, naturally, “privileged” students at Ivy League universities were his justification. He said, “It depends on the idea that I say to a community, ‘I’m going to forgive the debt, the billions of dollars of debt, for people who have gone to Harvard and Yale and Penn.’” Of course, students at elite universities do disproportionately graduate with less student debt than others — Harvard reported that just three percent of students take out loans — but the median amount owed at graduation for these students is not much less than the national average, with the high end at $25,714 according to the U.S. Department of Education. While universities like Harvard and Yale and Penn do offer substantially more financial aid than many other institutions — while also harboring some of the nation’s wealthiest students — the students that fall through the cracks are repeatedly disregarded as statistically insignificant. These students matter, too.
This is Biden’s problem. The administration has predicated its platform entirely upon means-testing, the long-held love from neoliberals that all social ills can be solved through a social safety net that captures exactly everyone who needs it, no more and no less. But the problem with means-testing is that, of course, it fails at reaching these ideals. Policies without universality must be continuously updated so they meet the needs of the populace, adjusted for inflation, for new economic developments, for new ways of working like the gig economy. This enables lawmakers to abandon citizens to the consequences of outdated or insufficient policy proposals — most of which were never capable of managing the demand for services in the first place.
Biden’s motive behind dragging Ivy League students into this debate is obvious. Only 0.4 percent of college undergraduates attend an Ivy League institution — meaning that using Ivy League students as representative for an entire policy is both inaccurate and clearly designed to use students who represent exorbitant wealth and privilege — even when they themselves don’t necessarily have exorbitant wealth or privilege — to victimize those who really need social policies.
Indeed, the hyper-fixation of American elites on Ivy League students has long been documented. But little conversation is had about precisely why people are so obsessed with Ivy League students. The answer is twofold: Conservatives are fixated on Ivy League students because of how they have responded to social pressures by offering more financial aid, more offers of admission to women and minoritized people and more left-wing social resources, whereas liberals are fixated on the Ivy League as a representation of elite actors. The problem with this latter approach is that Democrats inflate the power of social elites without acknowledging that not all Ivy League students are wealthy or go onto high-paying careers. And, more damning, they are using the ones that do as a measure to deny Americans necessary social entitlements.
It’s clear that Democrats don’t actually want to solve the student debt crisis. And — for better and worse — Ivy League undergraduates are part of the justification. We must recognize that our responsibility is not merely to acknowledge that Yale students have “privilege,” but to recognize how that privilege is weaponized in a political context. Politicians don’t want to solve the debt crisis. But we must.
MCKINSEY CROZIER is a junior in Timothy Dwight College. Her column runs on alternate Fridays. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.