December 13, 2021
Senator Elizabeth Warren says that student loan debt, at its core, is an economic equality issue.
That’s why the Massachusetts Democrat sent numerous letters to Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona and President Joe Biden, called out student loan servicers during congressional hearings, and even held up the Senate vote to confirm James Kvaal as under secretary of education.
“Through the decades, the cost of higher ed has increasingly been shifted away from taxpayers and on to families,” Warren told Inside Higher Ed. “Families that can afford to send their kid to college—and that kid can graduate debt-free—have moved their next generation forward faster and further than families that don’t have those resources. It’s that inequality that lies at the heart of it that has pulled me into this debate from the beginning.”
Warren is quick to rattle off the research and data that she believes best tells the story of the inequality that student loan debt can create. One of the studies she highlights is from the Institute on Assets and Social Policy at Brandeis University, which in 2019 found that white borrowers owed about 6 percent of their original loan 20 years after starting college, while Black borrowers still owed 95 percent.
“There’s a profound racial justice issue that lies at the heart of this,” Warren said. “That means racial inequality and wealth inequality that’s already out there is exacerbated through higher ed rather than dampened.”
Part of her passion for this issue stems from her own humble beginnings. Her dad, who was a janitor, and her mom, who worked at the department store Sears, couldn’t afford to send her to college. But she was able to make her postsecondary education happen with a part-time job as a waitress, given that tuition for a semester at the University of Houston was only $50 at the time. Warren says the United States has moved far away from the ideal that it should invest in opportunities for everyone—not just those born into privilege.