As President Biden Considers Student Debt Relief, Bennet Urges Him to Target Efforts to Low- and Medium- Income Households, Pursue Broader Reforms to Support Both College and High School Graduates
Washington, D.C. – Today on the Senate floor, Colorado U.S. Senator Michael Bennet urged long-term solutions to America’s broken student loan system and new pathways to drive economic opportunity for all, especially for Americans who do not attend college. As President Biden considers student debt relief, Bennet urged him to consider relief that reaches those who need it most and reforms to the underlying system that created a crisis of college debt and affordability in the first place.
“Today over about 45 million Americans as a result are saddled with student loan debt -- disproportionately students of color. In my town halls, many Coloradans tell me these loans have made their lives miserable. It’s devastated their credit scores, made it harder to purchase homes, start a business, or pay for childcare, or even move out of their parents’ basement,” Bennet said. “[I]f you’re gonna spend $200 or $230 billion to cancel student loan debt, we need to do it in a way that reaches those who need it most and reforms the underlying system that got us here in the first place…otherwise, we’re simply passing along this injustice to another generation of college students.”
In his remarks, Bennet proposes efforts to help low- and middle-income borrowers, such as forgiving $10,000 of debt for households earning the state median income or less, providing additional debt relief for student borrowers who have received Pell grants, expanding and reforming the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program, strengthening and simplifying the Income-Driven Repayment program, and increasing the maximum Pell grant so low- and middle-income borrowers do not need to take on so much debt in the first place.
“Americans deserve more than just student debt relief. An across-the-board cancellation of college debt does nothing to address the absurd cost of college or fix our broken student loan program. It offers nothing to Americans who paid off their college debts, or those who chose a lower priced college to go to as a way of avoiding going into debt or taking on debt,” said Bennet. “[R]eally importantly, it ignores the majority of Americans who never went to college, some of whom have debts that are just as staggering and just as unfair.”
To drive pathways to economic opportunity for all, especially those Americans who did not go college, Bennet urges the Biden Administration to strengthen workforce training programs, support partnerships with the private sector and labor that provide students paying apprenticeships, and, as he and Senator Rubio have proposed, allow high school graduates to use Pell grants not only to pursue college, but shorter-term high-quality credentials that can boost wages in the near term.
“The bigger question that should animate us on this floor isn’t how much student debt to cancel, but how to create a pathway to economic security for every American who graduates from high school, including those who don’t go get a four-year degree,” said Bennet. “It should be how to build an economy that, when it grows, grows for everybody -- not just the top ten percent.”
In March, Bennet called on President Joe Biden to extend the pause on student loan repayment until December 31, 2022 as the families and the economy continue to recover from the pandemic. Bennet also asked President Biden to work with leaders of both parties to develop long-term solutions to the U.S. student loan debt crisis. Following Bennet’s request, the president extended the moratorium until August 2022.
Bennet’s full speech is available HERE. A full transcript is available below.
I saw a report over the weekend, Mr. President, that President Biden plans to cancel a significant amount of college debt.
And I think it’s very important that before he does that, he considers several factors.
One is to consider how we got in this sorry state that we’re in. How did we arrive in this sorry state?
How do we put an end to the worst parts of a broken lending system?
And really importantly, and I think fundamentally, how do we create new pathways to a living wage for the 70 percent of Americans who don’t go to college.
And I think it’s important for us when we’re thinking about things like this, you know, potential policy by the Biden Administration to understand the context in which this is happening.
For fifty years, we’ve had an economy in this country that’s worked really well for the top 10 percent and poorly for everybody else.
You know, there are decades and decades and decades when the economy grew, it grew for everybody.
But for the last 50 years, when the economy has grown, it has grown for the wealthiest people in our country at the expense of everybody else. That’s been the effect of technology, it’s been the effect of globalization.
I think it’s long past time for us to admit that a lot of the theories that we told ourselves about, you know, the importance of privileging people that wanted to make stuff as cheaply as possible in China over creating productive work here in the United States, like those solar jobs that [Senator Heinrich] and I have been talking about.
You know, it’s time for us to think about that, and consider what it would look like to have an economy that when it grew it actually grew for everybody, not just the people at the very top.
I don’t think there’s any way that if we have another fifty years like the last fifty years, that we’re going to be able to sustain our democracy. That’s how important this is. Because when people lose a sense of opportunity, no matter how hard they work, that’s when somebody shows up and says I alone can fix it. You don't need a democracy. You don't need the rule of law. And that's what we’re struggling with.
Economic mobility has vanished in the United States. And as a former school superintendent of the Denver Public Schools, I am deeply saddened to say on this floor that our education system, far from liberating people from their economic circumstances, is actually ratifying those economic circumstances. It’s compounding the income inequality that we have instead of liberating kids from their parents’ incomes because the best predictor of your quality of your education is the income your parents made, to the point of ruthlessness.
And as the rungs of the economic ladder have grown wider over time, Americans have found it harder, and harder, and harder to earn a living wage with just a high school degree.
Michael Sandel, who's written a book which I would recommend everybody read, called The Tyranny of Merit, he argues that, in his book, that rather than fighting for an economy that actually works for everybody, more opportunity, less income inequality, American politicians have argued instead that the best hedge against economic catastrophe in a global economy is to get a college degree.
And, to be fair, this sometimes works.
The 30 percent of Americans who graduate with a four year degree go on to earn, on average, $1.2 million more dollars, Mr. President, over their lifetimes than Americans who only complete high school.
The tragic exception to that are Black college graduates who, as a result of racism in this country, earn on average less than white high school graduates.
Let me just pause on that for a second. On average, if you go to college, in this country you will earn $1.2 million dollars more than your fellow citizens who just have a high school degree. Unless you are a Black American, in which case on average you will earn less than white High School students.
I can't think of a more profound indictment of our society than that.
And as more and more Americans applied to college to “get ahead,” in an economy where they couldn't find other ways of getting ahead, my generation of taxpayers, my generation of citizens -- unlike our parents, unlike our grandparents -- refused to adequately fund our public colleges and universities.
Instead, we passed along tuition increases and tuition itself to students and their families. We said “it’s your responsibility,” even though we grew up in a system where it was all of our responsibility to make sure that public education was well supported. Public higher education was well supported in this country.
So we passed along these increases to students even though they saw no growth in their real income.
And they had no choice but to finance their college years through the federal student loan program. That was the answer. That was the financing mechanism.
And with no incentive to lower costs, colleges and universities just have jacked up the rates, they’ve increased tuition. And Washington bankrolled these tuition hikes by financing loans to attend nearly any institution, regardless of cost, quality, or student outcomes.
And as a result, the cost of college, not surprisingly, has skyrocketed over the last 40 years.
The fundamental problem we have here is that college costs too much. It’s too expensive.
In 1980, the price to attend a four-year college full time was $10,000 a year roughly -- including tuition, fees, room and board.
40 years later, the total price was $28,775 in real dollars –an 180 percent increase over that time.
Today over 45 million Americans as a result are saddled with student loan debt -- disproportionately students of color.
And in my town halls, many Coloradans tell me these loans have made their lives miserable.
It’s devastated their credit scores, made it harder to purchase homes, start a business, or pay for childcare, or ever move out of their parents basement.
And the same is true for many people in my town halls who never went to college and who struggle to afford housing, and health care, or child care -- the building blocks of a middle class life.
I haven’t seen any reports that President Biden plans to excuse their debt. These people on average making $1.2 million less than people that got a college degree. Their medical debt, or the debt that they’ve had to go into just to keep a roof over their head in this savage economy.
But now, President Biden is considering whether to forgive $10,000 of student loan debt for Americans who earned less than $150,000 last year, $300,000 for married families filing jointly.
And according to the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, this would cost $200 billion.
There are all kinds of ways you can spend $200 billion.
You could…extend the expanded Child Tax Credit for two years. Cut childhood poverty in half for two years. Reduce childhood hunger by a quarter—we did that the last six months of the year last year.
You could give every teacher in America [a] $6,000 raise for a decade, for $200 billion.
You could begin to tackle the climate crisis, which is devastating my state and your state, Mr. President.
But if you’re gonna spend $200 billion or $230 billion to cancel student loan debt, we need to do it in a way that reaches those who need it most and reforms the underlying system that got us here in the first place.
Otherwise, there’s no reason to do it. Because there are kids that are going to start school next year. And otherwise, we’re simply passing along this injustice to another generation of college students.
There is no shortage of ideas where we could start, Mr. President.
We should target the $10,000 of debt relief to low- and middle-income borrowers, and by that I mean households earning the state median income or less.
We should consider additional debt relief for student borrowers who received Pell grants while they went to school, because that’s a proxy for their income.
We should reform the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program – which forgives federal loans after 10 years of working in public service as a teacher, a firefighter, or a servicemember.
At a minimum, we should expand the program to more borrowers so more borrowers can take advantage of it.
And beyond that, we should forgive their loans after 5 years, instead of 10 years.
We’re losing 50 percent of the teachers from the profession in the first five years in this country.
We should strengthen the Income-Driven Repayment program to help low- and middle-income borrowers, for example, by:
Cutting red tape and simplifying the program so it’s simpler for people to access.
Providing relief retroactively for low-income borrowers who qualified for that program but never enrolled.
And finally, we should increase the maximum Pell grant so low- and middle-income borrowers don’t need to take on so much debt in the first place to get an education.
They’re having to bear a burden that no other generation of Americans have had to bear, and it’s not their fault.
Americans deserve more than just student debt relief.
An across-the-board, cancellation of college debt does nothing to address the absurd cost of college or fix our broken student loan program.
It offers nothing to Americans who paid off their college debts, or those who chose a lower priced college to go to as a way of avoiding going into debt or taking on debt.
It ignores, really importantly, it ignores the majority of Americans who never went to college, some of whom have debts just as staggering and unfair -- to say nothing of the 11 million poor children in this country who attend schools that are so terrible that they never had a chance at a college degree, much less a living wage.
As a former urban school superintendent, I’ll tell you I have worked on these challenges for years.
We have to revolutionize our public education to prepare our children for the 21st century — and that is a lot easier said than done, and in too many parts of the country we are actually headed in the wrong direction.
Our K-12 schools, as designed, will do little to make up for our failed economic policies, especially for kids living in poverty.
And in the meantime, we need an economic vision for this country, for our country that is more robust than making stuff - as I said - as cheaply as possible in China.
We need to make things again in this country so we can pay Americans a living wage. We need to fight for higher wages for people who do things like taking care of our kids or our parents, service jobs that can’t be shipped overseas but deserve to be compensated fairly in this country.
All of this is gonna take time. But we can start now by strengthening workforce training programs so high school graduates - so high school graduates - have a better chance to earn a living wage in today’s economy.
…that’s what a high school diploma should mean is you’re able to earn a living wage, not just a minimum wage in your community.
And we have examples of that now in Colorado, where kids are doing internships, you know, two days a week, they’re being paid to do those apprenticeships in their school, three days a week. And then when they graduate, there’s a job with a living wage waiting for them.
A system like that would transform the lives of millions of Americans, it would transform the American economy.
And we should support partnerships like that, you know, between the private sector and labor that provide students high-quality, paying apprenticeships while they’re in high school.
Senator Rubio and I have suggested we should allow high school students to use Pell grants not only to pursue college, but to pursue shorter-term high-quality credentials that can boost their wages in the near term.
I just met with a collection of people in Denver. It was one of the most inspiring things I’ve seen in a long time. These were people who had minimum wage jobs, never lived independently, or had roommates, and now because they’ve gotten just a little bit of credentialing over three or four months of training, they’re living independent lives.
And they can see a future beyond just paying yesterday’s bills.
The bigger question that should animate us on this floor isn’t how much student debt to cancel, but how to create a pathway to economic security for every American who graduates from high school, including those who don’t go get a four-year degree.
It should be how to build an economy that, when it grows, grows for everybody -- not just the top ten percent.
It should be how to give every American child real opportunities to contribute to this democracy and to our society.
That should be the level of our ambition on this floor, and I’m prepared to work with any of my colleagues to achieve that.
Thank you, Mr. President, I yield the floor.