Susan Campbell (opinion): We owe a debt to generation drowning in them

Photo of Susan Campbell
This artwork by Michael Osbun relates to students graduating with enormous debts.

This artwork by Michael Osbun relates to students graduating with enormous debts.

Michael Osbun

Because I forgot to be born an heiress, my college career was funded by grants, whatever scholarships I could scrounge, and a series of low-paying jobs I didn’t like.

When I collected my diploma, I walked out with $9,000 in debt, which at the time would have bought me a new Camaro, or paid for almost four years of rent in my one-bedroom apartment, the one with blue shag carpets and an iffy fridge.

The debt was more than half of my salary that first year of work, but years later, when the last check cleared, I was free to dip into adult stuff, like home ownership.

Now, I teach at a university where this month, seniors will collect degrees along with, on average, $27,000 in federal student loan debt, according to the U.S. News & World Report. That figure sounds low to me, considering how the students talk about it. They are savvy enough to know that it’s not just the original amount that could sink them. It’s the interest. If they fall behind, they can find that every payment they’ve made up to that point is gone, just like that, engulfed by growing interest.

Lately, college graduates with loans have gotten a little reprieve. A federal program that paused student loan repayments has been extended through August. The state of Connecticut has programs for students who graduate with specific degrees. As of this writing, time may run out for a bill meant to address loan reimbursement for students who attended a Connecticut state university. Fingers crossed. This is important.

Last week, President Joe Biden began talking about loan forgiveness in the neighborhood of $10,000 per student (well short of the $50,000 suggested by people such as U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass.). Within hours, people such as U.S. Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) took to Twitter to protest giving a reprieve to the commoners. What’s next? Asked Romney, and then he tweeted: “Forgive auto loans? Forgive credit card debt? Forgive mortgages? And put a wealth tax on the super-rich to pay for it all. What could possibly go wrong?”

It makes sense that super-rich Romney, who frequently trades the title of Wealthiest Senator, Like Ever with Democratic Sen. Mark Warner, would worry. People who are born with silver spoons in their mouths know they must be ever vigilant about guarding their wealth lest the rest of us charge the gates.

But the super-rich exist because the rules are consistently applied inconsistently. By some measures, canceling all or part of our $1.75 trillion in student loan debt could be considered a bailout. If we promise not to lift from debt any entity — including corporations — only then should we let those 45 million or so adults drown in tens of thousands of dollars (and sometimes more) in debt.

But that won’t happen, will it? The government has been in the habit of bailouts for as long as there’s been a government, and the biggest chunk of the money has historically gone to banks, the automobile industry, and various investment/mortgage firms. Remember “too big to fail?”

The investigative journalism organization ProPublica publishes a frequently updated BailoutTracker list that is telling. On it are respected American corporations such as General Motors (which, according to ProPublica, received $51 billion, and AIG, which received $68 billion, give or take a million or two.

(If you respond that questioning corporate bailouts is nothing more than a volley in class warfare, that tells me you think you’ve already won the war.)

If your arguments against relieving student debt fall under the category of “I took out loans and paid them off and everyone else should, too,” I invite you to join this century. If you’re worried that helping someone out of their debt is a lost opportunity to help them build character, I invite you to think realistically. If you’re worried that relieving student debt is a step toward socialism, see above, “Corporate Bailouts.”

I walked five miles to school every day (not really, it was a half-mile) through the snow (not really, my friend Sherry picked me up in her Gremlin), where we wrote our lessons on the backs of shovels (I may be confusing myself with President Lincoln) and then we went to slop the hogs (I totally made that part up). In fact, helping students who did what we told them to do — go to school, get an education so you can find a decent job — is one thing my generation, the Boomers, full of bluster and big ideas — could do for a younger generation that amounts to more than just words. I’m for it. I’m all for it.

Susan Campbell is the author of “Frog Hollow: Stories from an American Neighborhood,” “Tempest-Tossed: The Spirit of Isabella Beecher Hooker” and “Dating Jesus: A Story of Fundamentalism, Feminism and the American Girl.” She is Distinguished Lecturer at the University of New Haven, where she teaches journalism.