Student-debt cancellation was a rallying cry of the Bernie Sanders campaign in 2020—an immediate, palliative measure tacked onto the 2016 campaign’s pledge to make higher education free for all. The proposal drew its strongest support from precarious professionals, portrayed in the media as a generation in danger of ‘failing to launch’: educated, underemployed and perpetually adolescent, with marriage and asset acquisition postponed by the persistence of student debt.footnote1 During the pandemic, Trump granted a reprieve in the form of a payment pause. Indebted graduates placed their hopes for a permanent amnesty in a Democratic Administration led by Joe Biden, who planned to erase $400 billion in student debt (a quarter of the total), including the outstanding balance for 45 per cent of borrowers.

The June 2023 decision of the Supreme Court, striking down Biden’s debt-cancellation order on the grounds that the executive lacked the authority to ‘transform’ loan regulations, marked the twilight of a period of vigour and optimism among a politically engaged segment of America’s 45 million borrowers. Met with dejection among debtors and satisfaction from Republican bastions, the decision provoked only muted reactions in Democratic circles torn between the party’s ever firmer connection to college graduates on one hand, and concerns over debt cancellation’s ‘regressive’ social impact on the other.footnote2 The White House has since pressed on with the resumption of loan payments behind the fig-leaf of a much smaller, piecemeal forgiveness programme.

Student debt possesses a salience in American society matching its enormous fiscal proportions. Now totalling $1.7 trillion according to the Federal Reserve, it is equivalent to the gross domestic product of Canada, outstripping us automobile loans and credit-card debt. Two-thirds of American undergraduates borrow money to attend college, mostly from the federal government. Borrowers are not socio-economically equal, however: graduate borrowers, who account for a third of the total, tend to be the most indebted, their large loans for law and medical school easily repaid out of ample salaries. Debt overall is concentrated in the upper half of the income distribution. As a share of income, however, the burden is heaviest among the poorest, despite lower balances. Graduates now in their thirties—the millennial generation—owe most. Hispanic households are underrepresented among debtholders, black ones overrepresented (and owe more than the average).footnote3

Student debtors in other parts of the Anglosphere face uniform, comparatively lenient terms linked to income: essentially a tax on future earnings above a set threshold. In the us, by contrast, income-linked repayment is available only by choosing among a bewildering array of alternatives to the standard set of terms, which require full repayment within ten years with no consideration for income. Overall, conditions are harsh: loans cannot be discharged through bankruptcy; payments can be subtracted from old-age Social Security payments. Parents frequently take out additional loans to finance their children’s education (in borrowing for undergraduate study, this type of debt accounted for a quarter of the total as of 2019).

Unsurprisingly, given that student debtors are greatly overrepresented within liberal and left media outlets, all of this has been the subject of intense debate in the us. As with other subjects, the discussion most often concentrates on questions of moral desert: whether students deserve to have their loans forgiven, whether taxpayers deserve to foot the bill. Even the widely used term ‘debt forgiveness’ casts the issue as a moral one. This tendency is indicative as much of the distortions of us political discourse as of the limited horizons for political resistance available to debtors. David Graeber wrote of the process by which the inequality inherent in debtor–creditor relations is invested with a moral sanction that makes resistance difficult. Cédric Durand has described the material dynamics that inhibit opposition: ‘At the socio-political level, household indebtedness feeds an immediately antagonistic relation between creditors and wage-earners/borrowers. However, this relation struggles to express itself, since unlike the wage relation it a priori sets each individual household against its creditors in an isolated and not collective manner.’footnote4 The consolidation, under Obama, of the federal government as principal lender to students increased the possibilities for solidarity somewhat, but did not fundamentally alter these social relations.

Small wonder, then, the moralistic form that journalistic treatments of student debt often take: compendia of moving anecdotes about graduates and their families struggling under the obligation to repay loans. Since these accounts are difficult to generalize from, with circumstances varying from debtor to debtor, the reader is left little the wiser about the broader social contours of student debt.footnote5 Arguments over the fairness of debt cancellation—whether it would amount to redistribution to the wealthier sectors attached to the Democratic Party, or unshackling a generation otherwise doomed to precarious work without prospects of a dignified life—tend to neglect the social dimension of student finance as it currently exists. What is the function of student loans—and, by extension, mass university attendance—in American society and politics?

The question has far-reaching implications. In their ‘Seven Theses on American Politics’, Dylan Riley and Robert Brenner describe a us working class—defined broadly as all wage labourers, including high-earning lawyers and doctors—fragmented according to education level (as well as race), with the college-educated increasingly adhering to the Democrats and the non-college-educated forming the core constituency of the Republicans.footnote6 Student finance bears directly on the question of how this ba/non-ba divide is created and preserved, since contracting debt is now in a majority of cases necessary to obtain a degree.