May 23, 2024

The folks I know who will benefit from President Joe Biden’s student debt forgiveness program are not Sen. Ted Cruz’ “slacker baristas.” Nor is it true that most beneficiaries would be earners “in the top 60%” as Wisconsin Sen. Ron Johnson falsely claimed.
Instead, Biden’s plan would primarily help future respiratory therapists, nurses, early childhood educators, firefighters, and HVAC technicians.  These are the nation’s essential workers, celebrated as national heroes during the early days of the pandemic. Student loan forgiveness would help them crawl out of mountains of debt to possibly buy their first homes and enter the middle class.
But don’t take my word for it. The nonpartisan Penn Wharton Budget Model found nearly 75% of Biden’s proposal would benefit households earning $29,000 to $88,000 a year.
Biden’s plan would help people like Yolanda, a single mother and domestic violence victim, who escaped her abusive husband, but not their bills. Yolanda enrolled in Milwaukee Area Technical College’s Licensed Practical Nursing program to jump-start a new life for herself and her children. She took out over $45,000 in loans despite working part-time as an EKG technician because she “couldn’t afford to go to school, be a mom, and work full time.”
Yolanda is not alone. The most recent data from the U.S. Department of Education show 721,400 Wisconsin residents hold an average debt of $30,581 and, in total, held more than $23.5 billion in federal student loan debt. This huge drag on the economy as well as adults’ lives is the direct result of government policies.
Federal Pell Grants once covered the cost of attendance for students who attend two-year colleges. Today they cover less than 60%. Ron Johnson, who has voted against increasing Pell grants, apparently prefers shaming needy students and ignoring the fact that working a part-time job or even two is no longer enough to cover the cost of college.
More:Wisconsin borrowers: Prepare to pay state income taxes on forgiven student loan debt
More:5,000 former ITT Tech students in Wisconsin will have their federal loans canceled after investigations into the school’s practices
More:A bandage? A huge help? Not needed? Here’s what 5 Wisconsin borrowers think about student loan forgiveness
How does that lost 40% get made up? Certainly not on the state level. Wisconsin’s Republican-dominated Legislatures have prioritized high income and corporate tax cuts while slashing investments in higher education. For our state’s tech colleges, this means higher tuition and program cuts. For tech college students, it means taking yet another part-time job and going even deeper into debt by signing up for yet another loan.
Student problems were exacerbated by corporate for-profit colleges. Frequently employing deceptive tactics, companies like Corinthian, ITT Tech, the University of Phoenix and Sanford Brown descended on Milwaukee during the Great Recession. Many have now closed, leaving behind thousands of students with little to show for their efforts but massive debts, worthless credentials and broken dreams.
More:U.S. wiping away $5.8 billion in debt for Corinthian Colleges borrowers, including 3,320 students in Wisconsin
One of these students is Lateesah. She was lured into attending Everest College, an affiliate of the now defunct Corinthian colleges, by rosy promises of job placement. Despite graduating, Lateesah found that employers considered her Everest degree worthless, and she couldn’t land a job. But Everest had set her up for over $20,000 in student loans. Lateesah is now enrolled in the MATC’s Dental Technology program. Enrolling only 5% of college students nationally, for-profit institutions are responsible for 15% of all student debt and 39% of all defaults.   
President Biden’s student debt initiative will benefit these students and help create the skilled and technical workforce the nation needs.
While forgiving $10,000 to $20,000 in debt is important, it’s a one-time program. It does not address the structural crisis of college affordability. Biden’s proposal to make two-year colleges tuition free would be an important step in addressing this systemic problem. So would enacting a statewide first dollar promise program, something that was proposed by Governor Evers’ Task Force on Student Debt. Unfortunately, both these proposals are dead in the water because of Republican opposition.   
Recall that the U. S. led the world in establishing universal public education. That investment helped create the world’s biggest, most dynamic economy with a growing middle class. Following World War II, the nation expanded on that commitment by making higher education a universal public good with the GI Bill, the National Defense Higher Education Act, and large state investments in expanding affordable state university and technical colleges.
Older generations of college students didn’t have as much debt not because they were more virtuous, as Senators Cruz and Johnson have suggested, but because they benefited from social investment in their education by government. Those now opposing student debt forgiveness are conveniently forgetting that the government underwrote college education for earlier generations. 
If we’re serious about addressing the student debt issue, if we are serious about competing in the global economy, if we are serious about addressing the shortage of skilled and technical workers, we must address the crisis of college affordability by investing in our colleges, universities and the students who attend them.
We must make public higher education affordable again.
Michael Rosen is retired from the MATC Faculty and vice president of the FAST Fund board of directors, which offers emergency aid to keep MATC students in financial crisis from dropping out.


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