Sanders proposes canceling all student debt

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Sen. Bernie Sanders wants to cancel all student debt within six months and make college tuition-free and debt-free moving forward. His is the latest plan from a presidential candidate addressing an issue the AFT has pushed for decades—college affordability—and AFT President Randi Weingarten was on hand during the announcement June 24.

Randi in the front ground and Bernie in the background

Flanked by Reps. Pramila Jayapal and Ilhan Omar, who will introduce a companion bill in the House of Representatives, as well as Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Weingarten and several individuals who told their personal student-debt stories, Sanders said his goal is to make “a full and complete education a human right in America.”

Student debt has hit $1.7 trillion nationally; 45 million Americans owe money for student loans. “In the wealthiest country in the history of the world, it is simply not acceptable that our younger generation, through no fault of their own, will have a lower standard of living than their parents—more debt, lower wages and less likelihood of owning their own homes,” said Sanders. “That is why this proposal completely eliminates student debt and ends the absurdity of sentencing an entire generation to a lifetime of debt for the crime of doing the right thing—that is, going out and getting a higher education.”

The AFT has focused on student debt in its higher education work, offering student debt clinics, where members learn how to ease their debt through available repayment plans; advocating for better policy around affordability and financial aid; lobbying for stricter regulation of for-profit schools that take the lion’s share of student aid dollars; and suing abusive student loan servicers like Navient.

The AFT has also welcomed college affordability plans from Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who would cancel student loan debt up to $50,000 for borrowers who earn less than $100,000 a year and make college and technical school free for every student. Other presidential candidates, including Joe Biden, Kamala Harris, Amy Klobuchar, Tim Ryan and Beto O’Rourke, at AFT Votes town hall events and elsewhere, have also discussed the need to fund public education from preschool through college.

Sanders’ plan would forgive all student debt for all borrowers and provide free tuition and expenses to four-year colleges, vocational education, historically black colleges and universities as well as other institutions that focus on predominantly underserved populations.

Bernie on the hill

People of color are particularly affected by student debt: While 60 percent of white students borrow to attend a four-year college, 87 percent of black students do, said Jayapal. And it’s not just young people—whom Omar called “the debt generation”—who are affected by student debt. The fastest growing group of people who owe student debt are grandparents—people in their 60s.

“Virtually every one of my [AFT] members is dealing with student debt, whether it is herself or whether it is her family,” said Weingarten, describing one member whose Social Security payments have been garnished, and others who have chased after debt relief only to be misled and denied by student loan servicers. “We have a crisis here of immense proportions,” she said.

“It was literally easier for me to become the youngest woman elected Congress than it is to pay off my student loan debt,” said Ocasio-Cortez.

Sanders’ proposal not only would alleviate pressure on borrowers, it would improve the entire economy, he said, citing a recent study indicating that canceling all student debt would add an estimated $1 trillion to the economy over the next decade and create 1.5 million jobs.

The plan would be paid for by a tax on Wall Street speculations. “Ten years ago the United States government bailed out Wall Street after their greed, their recklessness and their illegal behavior drove us into the worst recession in modern history,” said Sanders. “Today the major Wall Street banks are larger than ever, their profits are soaring and their CEOs receive huge compensation packages. Our proposal, which costs $2.2 trillion over 10 years, will be fully paid for by a tax on Wall Street speculation similar to what exists in dozens of countries around the world.

“The American people bailed out Wall Street; now it is time for Wall Street to come to the aid of the middle class.”

The money is there, the speakers implied: “America does not suffer from scarcity, it suffers from greed,” said Omar. Weingarten agreed, pointing out the unfairness of an expensive Wall Street bailout occurring at the same time states cut back on their education spending. “We have 41 states in this country that spend less on public education than they did before the recession,” she said.  

As a result, “we’ve got millions and millions of families in this country who are struggling with outrageous levels of student debt,” said Sanders. “This [proposal] is for those families, this is for those young people, this is for the economy and this is for justice.”

[Virginia Myers]