Omdahl: When it comes to canceling student debt, fairness is the question – InForum

The drumbeat for the abolition of student debt intensifies as students and former students feel the financial squeeze from poor employment and rising inflation.

Forty-five million Americans owe $1.6 trillion in federal student loans. But there are many hidden debts acquired from private sources that are impossible to calculate. We know it’s big.

Twenty-four percent have student debt, leaving 76% with no student debt.

The political facts tell us that 24% will be keen to get rid of debt but the 76%, having no dogs in the fight, will be less supportive. So if student debt is to be erased, those in debt will need to come up with a plan that will be fair to everyone who is still paying debt and those who have already paid their debt.

In North Dakota, about 100,000 people have student debt of about $30,000 in federal and private bonds. The only good news is that it’s 20% less than the national average of $37,000. North Dakota’s outstanding debt is $3.2 billion. The average total monthly payment is just over $200 per month.

Here’s the breakdown by loan tranches, according to Student Loan Hero: 35% owe less than $10,000; 21% owe $10,000 to $20,000; 27% owe between $20,000 and $40,000; 9% owe between $40,000 and $60,000.

It should be obvious that the problem of student debt is complex. There is a wide range of debt between $10,000 and $100,000. Canceling all student debt will benefit some more than others.

Worse still is the large number of former students who have painstakingly paid off all of their debt. A general pardon would be a finger in their eyes. It will be seen as unfair to such a degree that many North Dakotans and Americans will not support it.

Naturally, we’ll want to see who’s responsible for this mess. Most people who oppose debt cancellation blame students for their financial mismanagement.

“They contracted for the debt; let them pay now.

Those advocating for payment will have to explain how circumstances have changed between when the contracts were made and the current situation. Why are we changing the rules right now? This question requires an answer.

First, student loans became too easy, so students were getting loans instead of working in the summer or managing a job and education together. The students didn’t hold back, renting private apartments instead of dorms, eating out instead of peanut butter sandwiches, traveling on trips, especially during spring break in Florida, and driving better cars than the university faculty.

The North Dakota Legislature is also at fault, allowing tuition to steadily increase from $1,000 per semester to $6,000. The only way some students could acquire a college education was to borrow money. Legislators (and colleges) knew that students, if pushed, could borrow money. So they pushed and the students borrowed.

There are more than enough complaints to make.

If we intend to reduce student debt, it seems that the plan must give those who have already paid the same treatment as those whose debt will be erased. In other words, if a plan has forgiven half of the existing debt, it must also forgive those who have already paid.

The solution requires fairness.

Omdahl is a former ND lieutenant governor and retired political science professor at the University of North Dakota. E-mail

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This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the Forum Editorial Board or the owners of the Forum.

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