Skip to main content

The outrage erupting from Republicans (and some Democrats) in Congress, statehouses, and media commentators at the limited student loan forgiveness proposed by President Joe Biden ranks among the worst generational rip-off hypocrisies.

The older generations in power today have accumulated extraordinary wealth (median household net worth for age 55-64, $187,300; average net worth, a staggering $1.17 million, 15 times that of householders ages 18-34). While we elders like to think our record wealth is due to hard work and enterprise, in fact we benefited from heavy taxpayer subsidies during our growing-up that we now deny to younger generations – especially for education.

The cost of attending a public university or college has rocketed upward 2.3 times faster than inflation since the average congressperson (age 59), state legislator (age 56), governor (age 65), or Supreme Court justice (age 69) was an undergraduate. The reason? Having enjoyed low-cost, taxpayer-funded public higher education in the 1960s, ‘70s and ‘80s ourselves, Baby Boom and older Generation X voters then elected conservative state and national leaders who sharply cut our taxes (particularly property taxes) and shifted massive higher education costs from taxpayers to students.

California students, like most others nationwide, suffered a double blow: hundreds of millions of dollars in higher education funding cuts, cancellations of thousands of classes, and admissions denials of hundreds of thousands of qualified students in the 1990s and 2000s, coupled with huge increases in tuition for a more crowded system. I and other graduate students at UC Irvine team-taught classes of hundreds of students that used to be much smaller and taught by professors, as did grad students across California.

“The concept of borrowing to pay for college is relatively new,” wrote New York Times education editor Edward Fiske in 1994. “We’ve broken the historical promise we’ve had in higher education,” lamented the American Council on Education’s David Merkowitz in 1995: “That the current generation will help pay for the education of the next generation.”

That “broken promise” by wealthier older generations caused a massive “intergenerational shift in responsibility for funding higher education,” inflicting crippling, lifelong debt on younger Generation X, Millennials, and Generation Z. Now, conservative lawmakers strive to overturn or tax the modest forgiveness of a fraction of student loan debt proposed by Biden for low- and middle-income ex-students.

Scroll to Continue

Recommended Articles

What is the opponents’ principle? That students who benefit from taxpayer funding of colleges and universities are getting an illegitimate “handout” that should be taxed away or denied altogether? If that’s the principle, then the "handout taxing" should begin with older, not younger, generations.

Were it not for taxpayer subsidies, the average member of Congress or a state legislature would have paid some $19,400 in tuitions and education costs back when they attended public four-year universities in the 1980s and before. Instead, they paid around $2,700. Adjusted for inflation, their early-1980s tuition in 2021 dollars should have been around $8,000 a year.

That is, back in their student days, the average lawmaker today received a taxpayer subsidy of more than $10,000 a year in today’s dollars to attend their college or university compared to modern students. How about adding some lines to state income tax forms to calculate and tax the much larger older-generation higher-education subsidy (a minimum of $40,000 each in taxpayer “handouts” for four-year public universities) at the same rates Republican lawmakers are champing to tax recent students receiving Biden’s more limited $10,000 to $20,000 loan forgiveness?

If the indignant reaction against comparing student loan debt forgiveness to forgiving government Paycheck Protection Program loans to businesses (loans availed by many lawmakers) is any indicator, older opponents of Biden’s plan will either ignore our own substantial taxpayer benefits or concoct hypocritical claims that “our” massive public subsidies were deserved and legitimate while “their” much smaller ones are undeserved “handouts.”

As a middle-income Baby Boomer who graduated from college debt-free in 1972 and paid off a $30,000 graduate student loan in the early 2000s, I’m not the least bit resentful that some students might get modest forgiveness of the higher education debts they incurred. The taxpayer subsidies my older generations received all our lives, now largely funded by younger generations who will be the first in history to be poorer than their elders, more than make up for it. We took public money by the truckload in our younger years paid for by our poorer parents and grandparents, then cut our taxes and shoveled costs on today’s poorer young when it came our turn to pay.

Yesterday’s low-cost, largely debt-free public higher education and today’s crushing $1- trillion-plus student debt both result from deliberate government policies in opposite directions. Deliberate government action, of which Biden’s loan forgiveness is only a start, is now required to equalize these mammoth generational iniquities.