FURNISH: The Debt You Owe Should Not Be Required of Me

Analogies between the Biden administration’s loan cancellation and these military assistance programs, such as the G.I. Bill and HEROES Act, are false comparisons.

Dr. Timothy Furnish is a writer, analyst, and author of five books, with over 13 years college teaching experience. He has taught at Georgia Perimeter College, Reinhardt University, Kennesaw State University, and Norwich University. Outside academia, he has lectured at Joint Special Operations University, Defense Institute for Security Assistance Management, the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center, and several other intelligence and military venues. He also worked for five years as a consultant to US Special Operations Command. Furnish obtained his doctorate in Islamic/Middle Eastern history from The Ohio State University, after serving as an Arabic interrogator in the 101st Airborne Division.

I know the burden of student debt. I was the first person in my family to go to college. 

After my undergraduate degree and one miserable semester of law school, I joined the Army, partly out of a sense of patriotism and the desire to learn Arabic. The Army would also pay back my educational loans, which, for 1983, were substantial. 

I served in the 101st Airborne and then earned graduate degrees with the help of the Veterans Educational Assistance Fund (the 1980s/90s version of the G.I. Bill).  

I graduated from Ohio State University with a Ph.D., and new debt. But my wife and I paid that off in addition to her own law school loans Thank God we were able to do so.  

We are hardly unique, however. Millions of Americans have done likewise. Why should others be given a get-out-of-debt-free card, then?

It’s too bad that most top American universities no longer teach Shakespeare.  If they did, more Americans would know that  Hamlet recommends “neither a borrower nor a lender be” (Act I, Scene 3). Very few Americans heed that advice, in any sphere. Americans now hold over $15 trillion of debt and student loans are the second largest source of that amount.

Student loan debt totals about $1.75 trillion, with the average borrower owing almost $29,000. The vast majority of that (92%) is in federal loans. 

On August 24, President Biden announced a new, and controversial, student loan “forgiveness” program. “The Department of Education will provide up to $20,000 in debt cancellation to Pell Grant recipients…and up to $10,000…to non-Pell Grant recipients. Borrowers are eligible…if their individual income is less than $125,000 ($250,000 for married couples),” the announcement reads. 

Many in Biden’s party supported it. Liberal Democrats (such as Senators Chuck Schumer and Elizabeth Warren) mostly cheered the move. But far-Left ones like Senator Bernie Sanders thought it did not go far enough. And some moderate Democrats, representing working-class voters, were less than keen on Biden’s plan. 

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Many conservatives, of course, were openly critical, accusing the plan of  taking money from the poor to pay for the rich.  Some critics have cited a study by the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, which argues that the program will cost taxpayers $330 billion. It also concludes that 2/3 of the debt “forgiven,” contra administration claims, would go to “households in the top 60 percent of the income distribution.”

There is also the question of whether Biden has the constitutional authority to cancel student loans. The administration has invoked the HEROES Act of 2003 (Higher Education Relief Opportunities for Students) as justification. But this legislation was meant to assist U.S. military members post-9/11. It was never intended to cover civilian students. 

Furthermore, last year even Democrat House Speaker Nancy Pelosi agreed that the President lacked authority to cancel such debts. But now she has, predictably, changed her tune

Of course, this White House program “smacks of vote buying for the November election,” as Steve Forbes wrote for Yahoo! News. But why should we be surprised? Such a practice has a long history in this country. 

If the current Democrat leaders were really interested in the public good, and not just avoiding electoral defeat this fall, they could have taken a more productive route. One that preserved the dignity of student loan borrowers while, at the same time, didn’t infuriate the millions of people who actually paid back the education debts they incurred at taxpayer expense. 

How? By bolstering two existing student loan payback plans: the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program (PSLF), and the various military student loan repayment programs

The PSLF was created by Congress during the George W. Bush administration to forgive “the remaining balance on your Direct Loans after you have made 120 qualifying monthly payments under a qualifying repayment plan while working full-time for a qualifying employer.” 

In late 2021, the Biden administration’s Department of Education announced that it would make “transformational changes” to PSLF.  But somewhere along the way, that principled approach gave way to naked vote buying. 

PSLF, in tandem with a legion of similar state loan forgiveness programs, could have provided debt relief to millions without the negatives of Biden’s scheme bytying loan repayment—not “forgiveness”—to actual work requirements, such as through Americorps or the Peace Corps. 

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Eligible work includes teaching in school districts serving low-income families, doing pro-bono legal work, practicing medicine or nursing in areas lacking adequate medical care, or working as a veterinarian in locales with a shortage of animal care.  

Furthermore, 47 states have specific student loan repayment programs for residents of their states. 

California has them for physicians, dentists, and allied health care professionals. Georgia will pay back $100,000 of debt for doctors who practice in underserved rural areas. Maine will cover loans of teachers, health care workers, and dentists. New York has eleven loan repayment programs, including for district attorneys, public interest lawyers, social workers, nurses, farmers, physicians, child welfare workers, and teachers.

In addition, the U.S. military has, for decades now, offered loan repayment. The Army, as the largest service, has the most options in this regard. But all branches have such programs. The Army and Navy each will pay offas much as $65,000 in student loan debt over a three-year period for new enlistees. The Army National Guard will pay back as much as $20,000. 

The caveat? These -programs are only for those in certain shortage Military Occupational Specialties (MOSs), most of which are either in short supply or require higher aptitude test scores. For example, the military intelligence fields—which often require specific language training—are usually among those. Of course, the Army in particular also offers substantial enlistment bonuses, such as $40,000 to enlist or $10,000 to go to airborne school.

Some debt forgiveness proponents have tried to draw analogies between the Biden administration’s loan cancellation and these military programs, as well the long-standing federal government G.I. Bill and its successor programs. But that’s like comparing apples and oranges. 

While taxpayer money does support both the loan repayment and the saving-for-education-after-the-military programs, these require service and some degree of sacrifice on the part of individuals. Biden’s blanket dismissal of such debts does not.

Even if the President’s plan to wave a magic wand and make much student loan debt disappear passes constitutional muster, it’s a bad idea. It encourages getting something for nothing and robs those who borrowed money of the dignity of working to pay back their debts. 

Mandating that “the debt he owes will be required of me” (Comedy of Errors, IV, 4), as Shakespeare wrote, is profoundly un-American and counterproductive. 

Many programs already exist for discharging such loans. Let’s encourage those instead. 

Editorials and op-eds reflect the opinion of the authors and not necessarily that of Campus Reform or the Leadership Institute.