Debt...and How to Forgive It

by Howell J. Malham Jr.


Art Buchwald — the brilliant American humorist and famed Washington Post columnist  — gave the commencement speech at my college graduation ceremony. He told us that if we remembered anything about that day, we would remember that we laughed.

He hinted that it might be the last time, considering the mountain of student debt we would be facing once we were sprung from the increasingly pricey cocoon known as “higher education.”

It was funny but only because it was true.   

Flash forward. Robert F. Smith, a billionaire tech investor, stands on the dais at Morehouse College, delivers a commencement address and gives the graduates a much greater gift than laughter.

He gives them freedom:: freedom from the unbearable financial strain of student debt; that seemingly inevitable burden that many, if not all, graduates must assume after they doff the mortarboards and polyester gowns.

“My family is going to create a grant to eliminate all of your loans,” he told the flabbergasted grads.

Everyone — from pundits, to loan officers, to future grads — scrambled to do the math to find out exactly how much this was going to cost Mr. Smith. But as they crunched the numbers, they were overlooking another remarkable, equally staggering fact.


Quoting Muhammad Ali, a friend of mine reminded me recently that “impossible” is merely an opinion.

And a lazy one at that.

Robert F. Smith, in a matter of seconds, deviated from his script, from age-old norms of corporate philanthropy and the norms of popular social innovation, not to mention commencement speaking. And, faster than a snap of one’s fingers, modeled for the rest of the country how to solve in an instant one of the biggest and most challenging social problems of this century:: student debt.

“Education-related debt impacts more than 44 million of us (around 1 in 4) who owe $1.5 trillion total, making the burden of education the country’s second largest debt after consumer mortgages,” according to a Forbes piece in November of 2018.

So, not only is it placing graduates immediately behind the financial eight ball the moment they find themselves playing by the rules of the real world, student debt is slowly but surely doing its part to wreck the American economy.   

The article made another sobering point. “We’ll soon owe more for tuition and books than we do for the roof over our heads.”

But we are told not to worry for solutions are in the offing. Tax credits for tuition, tax deductions for tuition, 401(k) matching plans for tuition. And of course the no-brainer of them all:: Student loan forgiveness programs, currently available to grads who take jobs at nonprofits, and other tax exempt orgs. Forbes suggested that grads who get gigs in industries that “keep our country afloat,” like healthcare and engineering, should also have their loans forgiven.

Mr. Smith went to Atlanta and simply decided to forgive everyone’s debt, regardless of one’s degree.

Just. Like.That.

If we’re going to do the math, why don’t we spend our time trying to figure out how many more members of the 1% it will take to follow Mr. Smith’s lead to help winnow down the current debt from $1.5 trillion to exactly zero.

Impossible? Quoting Muhammad Ali, a friend of mine reminded me recently that “impossible” is merely an opinion. And a lazy one at that.

While we’re at it, why not use this as an opportunity to examine that rather lucrative business model known as “higher ed,” and start asking some different questions about it, like should education be a business enterprise in the first place?

Let’s not pretend that it isn’t.

The Chronicle of Higher Education reported in 2018 that “it is not difficult to draw a bright line connecting the view of academic institutions as money-making enterprises with the readiness of Congress to eliminate longstanding tax benefits based on the idea of colleges and universities as charitable enterprises.”

An obsolete “idea,” given that college presidents are now widely seen as CEOs in the business casual raiment of an Oxford don, who are concerned only with the financial health and growth of said enterprises “than with educating students or serving communities.”

If Mr. Smith’s straight up act of philanthropic deviance doesn’t catch on with other members of the 1%, and willing members of the 99%, he has at least opened the door and cast light on those nagging norms of higher education, particularly the longstanding norms related to tuition. Now that we see them clearly, we can begin to question the expectations of soaring fees and hobbling debt that can crush the optimistic exuberance of grads and set them up for failure in life beyond the ivy and the ivory towers.

We can better understand what keeps them in place, and why.

Further, he has shown us one possible path to subvert those norms to help change those anxiety ridden expectations so that in the near future when any student is ready to learn, not only will a teacher appear, but so will a check.

He showed us a path. He’s walking it, too. How far must he go before others join him? ::