Of all the ramifications of President Biden’s student loan bailout, shockingly little has been said about the fact that eligibility for loan cancellation is not contingent on being an upstanding citizen.
The only qualifications announced to this point are to have a federally-held student loan and to have earned less than $125,000 in either 2020 or 2021. Someone with a serious criminal record, even someone currently incarcerated, could qualify to have up to $20,000 of their federal student loans wiped out by their fellow citizens.
People who are supposed to be paying their debt to society are instead having society pay off their debts. This is wrong. Even those who support mass loan forgiveness must admit that not every struggling borrower is morally equal.
There is a difference between a borrower whose college program failed to deliver the education it promised them and a borrower whose college did deliver that education but at a price the borrower now cannot repay. The former was cheated by their college. The latter received the product they paid for; they simply paid too much (and thanks to federal intervention in higher education, a great many borrowers pay too much for a subpar product).
There is a difference between both of those people and a borrower who cannot pay their loans because he has been convicted of a serious crime.
The Department of Education does not track how many student loan borrowers are incarcerated, according to Open Campus. Whatever that number may be, the population is large enough to have attracted attention from the Biden administration before: Earlier this year, the Education Department announced a plan to allow incarcerated borrowers to get their loans out of default.
To be clear, a great many incarcerated individuals deserve the chance at a better future, and education can be a big piece of that process. There are prison education programs, such as Second Chance Pell, that do excellent work in not only helping individuals but in reducing recidivism. But forgiving the loans of convicted criminals is not the same as prison education. It doesn’t make the beneficiaries any better educated than they were a day ago. It only forces society to pay a debt to them while they should be paying a debt to society.
The current education system sets some restrictions on who can take out a federal student loan: A person who is incarcerated may not borrow federal student loans while they are incarcerated. A person who has committed certain types of sex crimes is ineligible for a Pell Grant.
For Biden’s bailout, there are no such rules. Someone who never went to college and has been an upstanding member of society his whole life will be forced to bear the burden of debt incurred by someone who caused real harm to society. This highlights the unfairness of blanket loan forgiveness: By its very nature, it fails to account for the individual.
In a sane world, we wouldn’t have to have a national debate about spiraling student debt. The federal government would get out of the way of the free market, driving down the price of college. Students would pay less to attend, and they would have received a quality K-12 education, meaning that colleges could teach at an advanced level rather than lowering the bar and eroding the quality of the education they provide. In a sane world, colleges—not the federal taxpayer—would be held accountable when their graduates cannot pay off their loans.
But we don’t live in that world, at least not yet, and not for the foreseeable future. We live with a student debt crisis being made worse by a government that would rather throw money at the problem than fix a broken system.
If President Biden isn’t going to walk back this misguided plan, the least he could do is set some common-sense parameters around it.