Student Loan ‘Forgiveness’ Implies We Did Something Wrong

Photo: Sutthipong Kongtrakool/Getty Images

I am not one to wade into the choppy waters of renaming common terms or phrases. Yes, I do believe the pen — or the keyboard — is mightier than the sword, and I stand firmly by the leftist creed that “words matter” (as do full sentences). But, seeing as the sky has been falling for the last four years, as have bridges and now power grids, I usually feel our time and energy are better spent fighting other fights. However, the term “student loan forgiveness” drives me full-on mad. I have few triggers, but that is surely one button (constantly) pushed.

Can we please come up with a better way to discuss the $1.6 trillion economic problem we have on our hands? The whole conversation has been framed as a moral issue, and it is not. “Forgiveness” is an Old English word that reeks of Biblical overtones. It implies offense, crime, sin. Is this really how we want to discuss this? We would be much better served to move the conversation from the emotional/spiritual/religious realm into one that is purely black-and-white/dollars-and-cents.

Yes, I do realize that the term was not invented in the context of the student loan debate. It has long existed in the financial sector. But should it? We’re using the same term now to discuss the federal Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loans. Hundreds of thousands of small-business owners are logging into “forgiveness centers’’ on the websites of every major bank in this country, presumably to plead for mercy from the bank (who, by the way, is making billions processing this “forgiveness”) and the government for… what exactly? Not being able to operate during an unprecedented global disaster and the largest economic hit they have ever taken in their lives? The framing is subtle, but it’s important. And it’s damaging to the psyche.

Full disclosure: I went to a small independent prep school on a large scholarship, college on a grant and loans, and graduate school on loans and a fellowship. I was a kid from a working-class family, and I worked my tail off to earn my degrees. Suffice it to say that I have some experience with student loans. My life is essentially “brought to you by” the American higher-education financial-aid system. Still embedded in my monthly statements are college room-and-board charges from the late ’90s. Yes, I am still paying for bagels I ate during the Clinton administration.

Truthfully, I have no issue with it. Every dollar was an investment in my education. I love my profession and my life. My dream job is bearing fruit, slowly. And with income-driven repayment options available now, the loans are not pleasant, but they are structured and managed. I knew what I was doing. I did it gladly. Dare I say, it is what it is. It’s a loan. I owe it. It was worth it. Personally, I don’t seek “forgiveness” for my loans. I seek lower interest rates, more reasonable payback terms, and massive changes to our national credit reporting system so that student loans are not included in the mysterious algorithm. But I don’t seek forgiveness. I’ll pay them back when I make enough money to pay them back.

“Forgiveness” reinforces the deeply embedded narrative … that borrowing money is an embarrassing act.

What I refuse to do is feel bad about these debts. And the term “forgiveness” implies that all of us who took loans out to get a higher education need the rest of society to excuse our poor judgment. No one takes out a student loan for fun. We didn’t max out our AmEx in Vegas. We made a conscious decision to take a loan to cover the (exorbitant) expenses of the best universities we could get into. For most of us, we did so with the expectation and the promise that our own university wasn’t ripping us off (more on that another time) and that we would leave school better prepared to earn a large enough living to pay the loans back in a timely manner. These are the core premises of the three-way social contract between student, school, and government.

To say that we ought to be (or not be) “forgiven” casts the borrower as the villain of this very frustrating economic story. We are, in fact, not. We are the student, the hero, who set out on a journey for a better life — or at least for a better socio-economic standing. I propose we use the term “student loan termination.” “Pardon” implies an infraction. “Remission” implies a disease. “Absolution” goes way back to the collar and holy water. And “exoneration” implies blame. “Termination” simply implies that we have all agreed to end the loan. Period.

I vote we kill the word “forgiveness.” It reinforces the deeply embedded narrative — in the minds of the working and middle class — that borrowing money is an embarrassing act. And that making an investment in yourself, your future, and your own success is somehow shameful. It is not, my friends. Borrowing money, pooling money, and moving money around are fundamental tools of capitalism. Businesses borrow money every day. Entire disciplines of finance are dedicated to debt. Do you really think that AT&T, Ford, and Apple feel bad about taking loans? They do not. And neither should we.

Julio Vincent Gambuto is a writer/director, based in New York City. He wrote that Medium essay about the pandemic that went around the world to 21M readers. Follow on Twitter for small thoughts, or here for Medium ones, or his website for large ones.

“Giulio” (It’s Italian.) Writer/Director based in NYC. Outspoken so I can help you make sense of this modern world. www.juliovincent.com

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