When McKenzie Smart graduated from high school seven years ago, she knew she wanted to become a massage therapist.
She enrolled at Salon Professional Academy in Missouri's St. Charles County to earn her certification. Smart, 18 at the time, discovered it would cost around $17,000 for the nine-month course. So, like more than half of American students, she financed her education with student loans.
"I was told the banks would give me this much," she said. "I would have a fixed interest rate. That's all I understood about it."
Smart, 25, now works as a massage therapist -- a profession with an average annual salary of around $41,000 in Missouri -- and has consistently paid the $200 monthly installments for six and a half years. Even through the pandemic.
She was thrilled to discover that under President Joe Biden's student loan forgiveness plan -- which would cancel up to $20,000 in student debt, helping millions of Americans -- she would be eligible to have $4,000 of her remaining $12,000 debt forgiven. She applied for the program in October, but hasn't heard back yet.
On Nov. 14, a federal appeals court temporarily blocked the program, issuing a nationwide injunction against it. Six Republican-led states, including Missouri, challenged the plan, and a federal district judge in Texas also struck it down.
As the legal fight about the program's constitutionality plays out, there's a more fundamental question to be answered: Is student loan forgiveness fair?
Critics of the plan argue that this type of "handout" is unfair to those who have paid off their educational loans and to those who didn't take any to begin with. I can speak to this from personal experience.
I grew up in a working-class immigrant family, so I knew I would need loans to finance my education. I graduated in the late '90s with even more debt than Smart had. Then I took on still more debt for an expensive graduate school program.
In today's dollars, my total student loan debt would be more than $90,000. Since you are reading this column, you know I didn't enter a lucrative career.
Over many years, I paid off those loans -- but I also vowed to do everything I could to prevent my children from having to take on similar financial burdens for their education. I know what it's like to make sacrifices -- both to pay off my own debt and to save enough money to avoid that situation for my children.
Because of these experiences, I support easing the burden of student loans.
My generation, and those before it, paid significantly less for college than today's students do. In the 1970-71 academic year, the average in-state tuition and fees for one year at a public university was $394, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. At that time, public universities received more of their funding from local and state taxpayers, which lawmakers supported because having an educated workforce was in the best interest of economic growth. As a result, it was entirely possible to work your way through college.
Now, public universities get much less of their budgets from state funding. By the 2020-21 academic year, the average in-state tuition and fees for one year had climbed to $10,560 -- an increase of 2,580%. It's unfair that previous generations had access to affordable higher education that current and future generations do not.
There are many examples of far greater taxpayer "handouts" -– banking and airline industry bailouts, corporate welfare, trillion-dollar tax cuts, subsidies for massive corporate farms -- that almost exclusively benefit our country's wealthiest people and companies. In fact, some PPP loans given to millionaires during the pandemic have already been forgiven.
Why do we only hear about "fairness" when low- or middle-class people might benefit?
My guess is that it's because most of us don't compare ourselves to the wealthy, whom we know benefit from the system, but rather to our neighbors. And some of us don't want a neighbor to get a benefit we didn't get. That can be attributed to human nature, but it's not really about fairness.
Fairness involves reforming the system so that getting an education doesn't mean mortgaging your future. Fairness means that graduates who commit to work in fields of public service -- such as teaching, where there are critical shortages -- should not carry the burden of student debt. Fairness means capping interest on educational loans.
Students who make payments for 15 or 20 years end up paying far more than what they borrowed. Forgiving some of that debt based on people's income is more than fair.
Passing on a burden to future generations simply because we struggled through it ourselves doesn't further the cause of fairness.
It simply continues a broken and vicious cycle.