I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how the argument for student loan forgiveness depends upon empathy.
Student loan borrowers can make a strong case that forgiveness is good for the economy or even the right thing to do. However, if people don’t care about helping student loan borrowers, student loan forgiveness won’t ever become a priority or a reality.
How do we solve this problem? Is it solvable?
Is it possible for most Americans to empathize with student loan borrowers?
Some argue that empathy is an ability, and it is on the decline in the United States.
It isn’t hard to reach that conclusion. It seems anytime a new law is proposed in Congress, the first question is always the same: What do I get?
This issue is a massive hurdle for student loan forgiveness advocates. People without student loans receive no direct benefit. Many see no benefit to a change that would be life-altering for many borrowers.
Many are not indifferent about student loan cancellation. They are adamantly opposed.
Think about the long list of people who might be upset because they missed out on forgiveness:
- Americans who chose not to attend school because of the high cost.
- Families that made hard sacrifices to help pay for school.
- Graduates who passed on “dream schools” to attend a more affordable option.
- Former borrowers who worked hard to pay off their student loans in full.
Student loan borrowers can certainly argue that they wish they could fall into one of the above groups. Hard work is certainly to be respected, but there is an element of privilege to it as well. Some people work really hard–including working multiple jobs–but don’t have a meaningful opportunity to erase their debt.
Unfortunately, making this argument may not move the needle on forgiveness. At the end of the day, if Americans don’t care about those struggling with student loans, nothing else will matter.
Relating to the Student Loan Struggles
Teaching empathy might be a challenge, but most people have a pretty good understanding of fairness. Most people have an innate belief that unfair things are bad and should be fixed when possible.
Many people opposed to student loan forgiveness relate the issue to fairness.
I see the fairness discussion as an opportunity for student loan borrowers.
Anybody who takes a close look at student loans in the United States will see an unfair system. From a young age, Americans are indoctrinated on the idea that after high school, you go to college. People argue that student loan debt is “good debt” and we let people who are not even old enough to buy a beer commit to repaying over $100,000 of debt. When people enter repayment, there are special rules that protect lenders that don’t apply to mortgages or credit cards. Compared to these other debts, the rules for student loans are particularly cruel.
Add in deceptive for-profit colleges that do lasting damages to borrowers, and the fact that a college education is way more expensive than what it used to be, and things clearly are not fair.
Asking for student loan forgiveness exposes borrowers to accusations that they are asking for a handout. Calling for changes to a system that is unfair may be far more palatable to many Americans.
Empathy is a Two-Way Street
If student loan borrowers want Americans to care about their struggles, we as borrowers must acknowledge the hardships faced by others.
If you just paid off your student loans and then the government announces a student loan forgiveness program, it would suck. I’d like to think I’d take the high road and be happy for the people that don’t have to deal with the hardships I faced, but on some level, I’d wish I would have done things a little bit differently.
There isn’t an easy answer to this particular problem. However, we can’t pretend that this huge group doesn’t exist.
Making a Case for Student Loan Forgiveness
Polling information can influence public policy. When large majorities of Americans support a cause, politicians are often happy to appease their voters.
These days, many Americans form their opinions based on what they read on social media. The things borrowers say and post can make a difference.
Calling for debt cancellation or forgiveness probably won’t shift many opinions. Identifying how your school misled you, how the terms of your loan are unfair, or how you can’t buy a house because of student loans might actually change some minds.
As borrowers, the more effort we make to relate to the people who don’t have student loans, the more support we will get in our calls for forgiveness.