In the debate about student loan forgiveness, people often point out that many people opposed to loan forgiveness had their college education paid for by their parents, Therefore, the implication is, the opposition to loan forgiveness is illegitimate, because opponents are so “privileged” that they never had to take out loans themselves.
Nothing could be further from the truth. The fact that some parents saved up to pay for their children’s college education demonstrates exactly why student loan forgiveness is unjust.
Student loan forgiveness is unjust not because it is essentially a government-funded bailout of the rich, as many conservatives argue. It is not unjust because it subsidizes colleges, thereby allowing them to continue increasing their prices (although this is probably true). It is not unjust because it forces people who chose blue-collar careers to subsidize people who chose to study less practical subjects such as gender studies (although this is probably true, too). It’s not even unjust because it goes against the principle of personal responsibility by letting people off the hook for the financial ramifications of their decisions (although this is true as well).
Student loan forgiveness is unjust because it changes the rules after people have already made decisions based on the old rules.
Before student loan forgiveness was introduced as a possibility, it was assumed that if someone goes to college, they must pay for it. This is, after all, the way that things work with any product or service. If a person chooses to purchase a product or service, then the person must pay what the product or service costs. For some products and services, including college, there is the option to pay the cost now, as well as the option to pay the cost later, usually with interest added (also known as taking out a loan). Given that they would need to pay the cost at some point regardless, my parents chose to save up money so that they could pay at the beginning, rather than taking out a loan and facing the likelihood of having to pay interest.
But then, thanks to Joe Biden, the rules changed so that people who chose the second option (taking out a loan) are now being told that they don’t have to pay at all! (Technically, they have to pay $10,000 less as opposed to nothing at all, but the same principle applies). This means that my parents, after having already made the decision to pay at the beginning to avoid being charged interest, are now being told that if they had chosen the second option instead, they would be charged a smaller, not a larger, total amount of money. But it is too late for my parents to change their decision, because they have already paid. And there is no way for them to get their money back, because instead of treating people equally, the Biden administration is bestowing the $10,000 discount upon only those people who chose the second payment option (taking out a loan).
Needless to say, had my parents known that they would receive a $10,000 discount if they had simply not paid and taken out a loan instead, they would have chosen this option. Choosing the first option (paying at the beginning) required my parents to save up money, and they made sacrifices in order to do this, such as working full time and foregoing other purchases. If they could have saved up less money with zero negative financial ramifications, my parents would have been able to take more vacations, make improvements to their home, or buy additional clothes and toys, to give just a few examples. It is patently unjust that parents who chose the vacations or the home improvements (or perhaps who chose not to work at all) instead of saving up money are now going to be rewarded for their choices with a $10,000 discount, while my parents are stuck having paid the full price with no way to get any of their money back.
In conclusion, there is definitely a need to make college less expensive. But the problem with student loan forgiveness is that it makes college less expensive retroactively, after some people have already paid the full amount. Student loan forgiveness makes it so that one of two payment options comes with a discount… and people are not told this at the time when they must make a decision, but only after the decision has already been made. In other words, student loan forgiveness changes the rules after people have already made decisions based on the existing rules. This is what makes it unjust. When loans are forgiven, a situation is created in which people like my parents, who made sacrifices to save up money, turn out to have saved up that money for nothing. If people with student debt are going to get $10,000 of their debt forgiven, then people who have already paid must receive a $10,000 refund.