I am one of the many who have benefited from Student Loan Forgiveness. So I thought I’d tell my story about my student loans and how their forgiveness helps my family and our faltering civilization.

To start, why go into massive amounts of debt for a career in Art, you ask? First, I didn’t go to school for a job. I went to improve myself, achieve something difficult, and expose myself to the broader world of Art. I also wanted to surround myself with talented artists and mentors to kick-start my creative and academic endeavors. You may think that improving oneself is not a valid justification for the effort and cost. While I firmly disagree, there is more to my decision beyond romantic ideas of personal improvement.

The other reason is that I had a strong sense that I was on the verge of being laid off for a second time, and I needed to change careers with a quickness. I was working as a graphic designer in a hip little ad agency just as the housing market and overall economy collapsed. Because I was laid off once before, I recognized all of the signs that precede joblessness; a renegotiation of benefits, detailed accounting of every hour of work, unpaid days off, desperate attempts to gain new clients, and a general fog of uncertainty.

Chatfield in MFA Hood

One of the prouder accomplishments of my life was this ugly brown hood.

So I applied to Grad School. Something I had wanted to do anyways but hadn’t pulled the trigger as even leaving an unstable career was terrifying. Losing my job for the second time seemed like the ideal time. And my new career choice required an advanced degree (one of the few exceptions to my don’t-go-to-college-for-a-job rule).

This choice was also likely influenced by the ubiquitous advice we’ve all heard for decades and decades that when things go pear-shaped, like losing your job during a recession, you take advantage of the time to retrain for a different career. In my mind going back to school was precisely the right thing to do. And going into debt was a necessary evil for the end benefit of leaving an unfulfilling and unstable career for one that is personally fulfilling and less prone to economic strife.

I did exactly what I was supposed to do. But the problem isn’t about forgiving debt but the gargantuan piles of money required to go to school in the first place. The cost of higher-ed has increased 169% since the ’80s, while pay has risen only 19%. So to do the right thing, tons of debt is unavoidable.

The other problem is that my newly chosen career doesn’t pay well. For some incomprehensible reason, we don’t like paying our teachers or artists well. And for an even more unimaginable reason, Adjunct Instructors get paid a third to half what their full-time counterparts get. Yet the stability I’ve found in this career has kept me working for the most extended period of my working life. And it’s fulfilling enough to sustain me through teaching during a Pandemic and several bouts of burn-out.

But most months, I could not pay my loan and deferred it for at least a year. And while I was personally fulfilled, being in this much debt limited my options, from better housing to not needing to work four jobs to afford the cost of being alive.

It wasn’t until President Obama’s income-based repayment plan and public service debt forgiveness that I finally saw a way to move forward with my life. For most months, I was able to pay $0. And as I worked for non-profit and public institutions, my low-paying career was seen as a benefit to our society and worthy of forgiveness. And I was approaching my 40s and hadn’t made more than 30K a year in my professional life. I had never owned a home nor had any prospects of starting a family. Not only could I not afford a fam, but many women don’t see a broke Art teacher with a metric ton of debt as a great romantic prospect. I understand not all women believe this, but I was told as much by at least three women I dated.

So fast forward to dating my now wife, who was rightly concerned with my loans. I finally took the most enormous gulp of my life and checked my credit, assuming the debt would still be there and we would have to delay getting married or buying a house. And to be clear, our apartment was too small, and the rental market was egregiously expensive. Lo and behold, because I enrolled in both programs, my debt was not to be seen, my credit was shockingly good, and we could move forward with our lives.

"Higher Education" (c) Jeff Parker

“Higher Education” (c) Jeff Parker

I cannot tell you how that debt would have hobbled my future. And to reiterate my ultimate point here, going to school and incurring a silly amount of debt was not a choice but a necessity. I did precisely what our society requires. If you disagree, please, for all of our sake, never speak about how one should just get another job when things get tough. It isn’t that simple. I am highly educated, white, cis, have worked most of my life, and have every advantage, and yet I have struggled to get a job, let alone maintain a career (let alone two). So imagine how much worse it is for others and how much more necessary it is for someone to get an education to improve one station in life.

Debt forgiveness is not a handout. It will not affect anyone else in any way. It won’t increase inflation. It won’t raise tuition (that will happen regardless). And it won’t be passed on to others in any significant way. The problem is not with forgiveness but with the perpetually increasing education cost. Public funding of schools and private endowments have decreased, resulting in Higher-Ed institutions finding income in other ways. And these institutions are unnecessarily administratively top-heavy. Resulting in six-figure salaries for non-instructional bureaucrats. And as tuition goes up, income decreases (or stays flat), making affordability even more unreachable.

WSJ Debt to Income

Debt vs. income. Source, WSJ

And debt forgiveness is not a new thing and, in fact, has biblical roots. Many Mesopotamian Empires would forgive all debts during the transition from one Emperor to the next. This was a way to spur the economy and for the new guy to ingratiate themselves with their new subjects. This was the case with the Israelite community, where every 7 years, debt between Israelites would be tossed. And lest I neglect to mention how charging interest is also biblically prohibited.

So this will ultimately help those limited in economic advancement, and their newfound ability to contribute to the economy in a meaningful way will raise all boats. Those who rely on public assistance increase the tax burden on others, so it is to all our benefit to ensure fewer people are poor. Financial independence equals personal freedoms and cost savings for the government.

So if you have already paid your debts or are not in the income bracket that just received forgiveness, I want you to understand that the well-being of others is your well-being too. At the most, it’ll save you money in the long run, and at the least, it is the most empathetic thing to do.