Service, not money, may be best way to solve student-loan debt problem

York Dispatch editorial board
  • The idea of student-loan debt forgiveness has become a hot-button issue recently.
  • Paul Begala, a former advisor to President Bill Clinton, has a possible solution.
  • Begala would like to see students work off their debt through public service.

Occasionally, you hear about an idea that screams: “That makes perfect sense.”

That was the case Friday night when we saw Paul Begala on HBO’s "Real Time with Bill Maher."

Begala is political consultant and a former adviser to President Bill Clinton.

We’re hoping that our more conservative readers out there won’t stop reading at the mere mention of Begala and Maher. Yes, there’s no denying they both lean to the left.

Friday night, however, Begala promoted an idea that we think can appeal to both sides of the political spectrum.

It came when the discussion turned to the topic of student-loan debt forgiveness.

That’s become a bit of a hot-button issue lately.

George Washington University student Kai Nilsen, left, watches as American University student Magnolia Mead as they put up posters near the White House promoting student loan debt forgiveness, Friday, April 29, 2022, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

The progressive view: Many progressives say the overwhelming college debt facing many young people has simply created a burden so enormous that it will be impossible for many of them to ever get out from under it.

They also argue the debt especially hits hard on people of color and those from poor families.

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Finally, they argue that the massive student-loan debt crisis is a drag on the economy.

The conservative view: Of course, there’s another side. There’s always another side. In this case, however, the other side has its fair share of solid points.

For instance, why should folks who never went to college be forced to help pay off the loans of college students who will likely, in the long run, make more money than they will.

Also, a loan is legal agreement. Why should we disregard that agreement simply because some students freely choose, without any arm pulling, to attend a private school they can't reasonably afford or major in a curriculum that is notorious for low pay.

College students are making an investment. They can invest in a trade school or a community college. Instead, many of them choose to attend private liberal arts schools and take up majors that have very little chance of paying off in the 21st century job market. That’s a risky investment and when you make a risky investment, there’s a price that must be paid.

The Begala view: Well, Friday night, Begala made a suggestion to solve this thorny issue — one that sounds perfectly reasonable.

“What I’d much rather see Democrats do is go back to their roots, which is earn it,” Begala said. “We’re the party that carried the G.I. Bill, and nobody called that free college because it wasn’t. The guys who got the G.I. Bill earned it.

“Why don’t we have a system where we say: You want to get out of your college debt, serve your country, Marine Corps, Peace Corps, AmeriCorps. Not everybody can carry a rifle, but you can mentor a kid and you should give two years of service. Then you will have earned that.”

Now we don’t know if the idea actually originated with Begala, but that’s really irrelevant. The idea itself deserves strong consideration.

A solid premise: Would there be logistical hurdles to overcome and details to hash out? Of course, but every new or original idea has those obstacles.

The basic premise, however, would seem to solve the problem without simply giving away more money and adding to our monstrous debt.

Will Begala’s proposal ever come to fruition? Almost certainly not.

It just makes too much sense.