Searching for a way to rescue the American dream

Two of the leading candidates for the Democratic party’s nomination unveiled plans to deal with the student debt crisis — and were met with a chorus of critics.

On Monday, Senator Bernie Sanders proposed eliminating all student debt, to the tune of $1.6 trillion. Sanders also wants to make public universities, community colleges, and trade schools all tuition-free. With his proposal, Sanders has one-upped Elizabeth Warren, his main opponent for the Democratic party nomination. Warren’s proposal is for a tiered loan forgiveness plan — up to $50,000 based on household income.

But while student debt is an enormous burden for both individuals and the economy, critics have nonetheless objected to the plans put forward by both Sanders and Warren. Kevin Carey, who directs the education policy program at New America, the Washington, D.C. think tank, writes in the New York Times that the plans fail to account for the largest cause of student debt in the United States — i.e., graduate and professional school programs. Adam Looney, a Brookings fellow cited in The Wall Street Journal, says that Warren’s plan would benefit higher earners. Matt Bruenig, a policy analyst who founded the People’s Policy Project, grapples with some of the inconsistencies in the plans; but he does not see any potential benefits.

However, as author and documentary filmmaker Astra Taylor reminds us in The Guardian, the call for student debt forgiveness began with grassroots organizing. The Debt Collective, an organization she co-founded, organized student strikes that resulted in the cancellation of more than $1 billion in debt acquired by people who attended fraudulent for-profit colleges. Nor is the Brookings Institute’s analysis the last word on “fairness”: Taylor cites research by sociologist Tressie McMillan Cottom and economist Darrick Hamilton, which shows that student debt disproportionately affects women and people of color. Debt forgiveness could help close the racial wealth gap.

Meanwhile, more than 150,000 victims of deceptive practices by for-profit colleges are suing the Department of Education for failing to deliver on debt relief that is already guaranteed by existing laws.

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Jessica McKenzie is a freelance journalist in Brooklyn, NY. Previously, she was the managing editor of the civic technology news site Civicist and interned at The Nation magazine. You can follow her on Twitter @jessimckenzi.