“Will pupil debt cancellation worsen the divide between graduates and blue-collar staff?”

“Joe Biden spoke out at a press conference and the White House Twitter account counterattacked Republicans who denounced the measure” OLIVIER DOULIERY / AFP

MAINTENANCE – Joe Biden on Wednesday (August 24) signed an executive order providing partial student debt relief to 43 million Americans. This measure will be at the heart of the election campaign for the midterm elections, says Laurie Bereau, a professor of civilization in the United States.

Laurie Bereau is Professor of American Civilization at Rennes 2 University.


LE FIGARO. – Joe Biden announced the partial waiver of student debt. How important is student debt and the cost of higher education to American public opinion?

Laurie BEREAU. – This issue occupies a prominent place in American discussions. Some see it as the next bubble that could sweep the US economy – student debt has reached $1.5 trillion in the US. It is, therefore, a very present problem in the minds of Americans and this announcement was very well conveyed in the media and on social networks, with an incisive communication from the White House: Joe Biden took a step forward at a press conference and the White House Twitter hit back at Republicans who denounced the measure by flaunting the tax credits that some Republicans have benefited from during Covid, a way to attack the hypocrisy of Republicans who see no problem with tax credits when they benefit companies or the rich.

Who is affected by this decision?

Education is a state jurisdiction in the United States. There is, therefore, no system as such and many disparities. Very progressive states like New York or California, for example, have reasonably developed and well-funded public university networks, even if this has nothing to do with French universities. The announced partial debt relief applies to all Americans in all states, regardless of the type of institution they attended – because the system is so fragmented, between public universities, private not-for-profit universities, and private for-profit institutions. But the $10,000 student debt waiver will only target alumni who did not earn more than $125,000 annually in 2021 or 2022.

This measure is one more response to the inflationary crisis, to the fall in purchasing power, but it does not respond to the structural problem of debt and the cost of studies.

Laurie Bereau

Does this measure represent a turning point in education policy in the United States, or is it just a short-term measure?

This is an important measure because just over 40 million Americans are eligible for this partial debt relief. For about half of them, that equates to completely erasing their student debt list, which is no small feat. This decision is aimed in particular at the socio-economically weak alumni, those who have preferred short, professional and less expensive training courses, but which do not necessarily lead to well-paid jobs. It will also help the large number of students who have dropped out of school.

The measure is aimed very well at the most fragile – because there was the risk of wetting all those who were wrongly denounced by the Republicans -, but it does not solve the root of the problem, the cost of higher education in the United States and the need to get into debt. to be able to study. We have an answer there, in 2022, which is more of a response to the inflationary crisis, to the decline in purchasing power, but it does not provide an answer to the structural problem of debt and cost studies. Some even say that this fuels the problem because partial debt relief acts on what students pay, rather than moderating and regulating the unit of what institutions charge. One can imagine that establishments will take advantage of this $10,000 exemption to earn more; there is a risk of a colossal increase in enrollment fees.

Various positions coexisted within the Democratic Party on this issue; How was the announcement received in the Party?

Among Democrats, the first response is quite positive. We see the sign of a momentum that is galvanizing the more progressives, the left wing of Democrats, who see the midterm elections coming in November and are happy that things are starting to change. After the law to reduce inflation and its many provisions on the environment and energy policy, this new measure continues the remobilization of this left. Some believe, however, that it doesn’t go far enough: during the 2020 Democratic primaries, Bernie Sanders called for a total cancellation of student debt and free access to higher education; Elizabeth Warren proposed a cancellation of up to $50,000 for all students. Joe Biden, who is centrist, already announced more moderate numbers.

The US president is caught in the crossfire because he also has a very centrist wing, including several Democrats whose congressional seats are up for grabs in November and who hail from slightly more moderate states. They are worried that this move the Republicans could beckon as a socialist danger. In Ohio or Nevada, for example, elections will be contested in part with low-level workers who may feel disadvantaged by the measure.

There is a very clear divide among Americans, linked to education level: Americans with a degree are largely Democratic-biased, and those who have not passed high school are a constituency very much inclined to support Republicans.

Laurie Bereau

How did the Republicans react?

For republicans, it’s a kind of godsend; this move allows them to stay out of the news from the turmoil in Mar-a-Lago, Florida. Also, when we look at the elections of the last few years, there is a very clear divide among Americans, linked to the level of education: Americans with degrees turn largely to Democrats, and those who don’t have a high school education are an electoral bloc very inclined to support the Republicans. Republicans are therefore playing this card by denouncing the fact that many brave Americans have paid off their student debts without assistance from the state. They also raise the specter of debt, deficit and the cost of that measure. Finally, we criticize the electoral side of the measure, two and a half months before the elections: Ted Cruz believes that we are buying the vote of Americans who will benefit from it and that we will finance lazy people who make a living, who have not calculated the cost of their studies at the expense of more deserving Americans.

Mitch McConnell, Senate Republican minority leader, saw this as a “form of socialism” and a big slap in the face to American families who sacrificed to pay for their children’s education. We really pit the opposition of the worker who didn’t study and worked hard to feed his family or who separated to finance his children’s studies against the America of the assisted who didn’t calculate, didn’t work, who takes refuge in long studies that lead to nothing. and who pockets the check at the end of the race.

Could such a move widen the divide between educated urbanites and the American middle and working classes?

This is certainly an argument that will be presented by the Republicans, but it does not correspond exactly to reality because, in fact, the measure will mainly benefit people who have not studied very long and who have not assumed a colossal debt. The default profile that will benefit is that of the student who went to the community college close to home for short, technical and professional training. It will be used by Republicans who are trying to mobilize their electorate for the November elections; they are losing ground and therefore will cling to this measure to play on the caricature of the Democrat who is rich, educated, lecturer and not in tune with the pulse of America.

SEE TOO — Joe Biden announces partial forgiveness of student debt

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