A nonprofit publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

Jamie Ruehl: Regarding the student debt discussion, what is debt and what is really being cancelled?

I’m pretty sure we have all seen the handwritten protest signs either in-person on campuses, or on your computer screen in pictures of activists. The Supreme Court is hearing arguments about our President’s attempt at cancelling student debt and may even have issued their ruling by the time this is published.

The signs I’ve seen state: “Cancel Student Debt!”, “Student Loan Forgiveness Now!”, “Canceling Student Debt Is Legal!”

I’m not an attorney. I can’t cite statutes nor case law that would shed any legal light on this subject. My opinion comes from my personal experiences with student debt and a fairly basic understanding of how our federal government works: The House holds the purse strings, the President deals mostly with foreign matters and the Judiciary plays referee.

To be clear, I’m not for canceling anyone’s student loans. Before I was awarded a 2-year ROTC Scholarship at Xavier University, I spent a lot of hard-earned money and signed my name on the dotted line for 2 years of private university education. I know what it’s like to be a student and young professional with 5-figures of student loans hanging over their head. Some of my friends at XU in ROTC were 4-year Scholarship students. I remember being envious of the financial freedom they seemed to have. Two of my roommates had really nice vehicles (Mustang 5.0 and a lifted Chevy 1500 affectionately named “Truckzilla”). My roommates may not have been starting their professional life with student debt, but I sure was.

Jamie Ruehl grew up in Erlanger. He graduated from St. Henry District High School, earned a degree in business administration from Xavier University, served the US Army on an ROTC Commission in 2001, attaining the rank of Captain and serving overseas. Back home, he graduated from Northern Kentucky University’s Executive Leadership and Organizational Change Master’s Program in 2018. He served as a Law Enforcement Officer for 8.5 years and was inducted into the American Police Hall of Fame. He has been a staff insurance adjuster since 2019 with a large carrier headquartered in Cincinnati. He is attempting to be the best possible husband to his wife of 15 years and best possible father to their 3 children. They live in Edgewood with their two dogs. He is a life-long distance runner.

What does it mean to be “in debt”? According to Mirriam-Webster.com “debt” is:  “1: something owed: OBLIGATION. 2: a state of being under obligation to pay or repay someone or something in return for something received: a state of owing.”

The part that I would like to highlight is “in return for something received.” It is important to make this distinction: Student Debt is a tool. A tool that is used to gain education, certifications, experience, and titles. Student Debt is a voluntary agreement between the student and the lender.

What makes a student loan different than my mortgage? Tangible “something received”?

The push to remove debt without repayment seems to have been amplified lately. But who is actually pushing? It is one thing to make hollow campaign promises to garner some votes, it is another to magically attempt making debt go away. What is the reason behind serious people entertaining such unprecedented actions? Might our modern vernacular be swaying otherwise sound thinkers?

The wording used to frame the conversation of abolishing debt lacks candor. Using the word “forgiveness” implies debt is sinful or wicked. Are we really going to let society redefine debt into an evil thing? If you ask certain talking heads, the resounding answer to that question is, “Hell yes debt is evil!” Without going too far down the rabbit hole, yes debt can be wicked. If debt is used with wrong intentions or if people are tricked into taking on debt yet not receiving anything in return, that can is evil. I’m very much amazed at the number of students who attend universities and obtain a degree with no clear focus. When someone graduates with a degree that doesn’t benefit them financially yet they’ve elected to use tens of thousands of dollars of debt to accomplish that degree, that is potentially a “deal with the devil.” But it’s a decision they made.

It wasn’t forced on anyone.

Or, how about we just cancel the debt. This is another example of using words to reframe reality.

Twisting the meaning of debt from being a “tool used to gain something” to “something we wish
to discard.” What are we really canceling if we wipe out $10-20K of debt per person? I wonder if this isn’t an underhanded attempt at dissolving obligation. This attitude seems to be, “don’t worry, Uncle Sam will decide/pay/think for me.”

Activists claim canceling student debt is legal. Never mind the legality, is it even ethical? Those activist statements appear like a concerted effort to incrementally take away individual responsibility for decisions. To have an obligation is to have a responsibility. If we are canceling obligation, we are canceling responsibility.

The President’s webpage cites the inflation of tuition as justification. Universities over time have adjusted tuition and “baked in” the cost of student loans because they are available to everybody. We watched inflation soar after all the infusion of cash into our economy during the pandemic, student loans are the same thing, the biggest difference: decades of inflationary school loans. Our universities have become addicted to the easy money too. So much so that they’ve become lazy in their budgeting because they keep returning to the Big Government Debt well. Most of our public universities are millions of dollars upside down due to this lack of sound management by our university presidents/boards.

It is simple economics: supply and demand. If everyone has more money, everything costs more and we all lose purchasing power. The White House estimates approximately $240 BILLION will be spent absolving people of their student loans. Other economists say it will actually cost taxpayers twice that. The loans have actually driven up the cost of a four year degree.

And what about people like my cousin? He decided that college wasn’t for him. He smartly weighed his options late in high school and decided that he would rather go into a trade. He has worked hard for years, building his skills and competencies. Over time and with experience he earned certifications and licenses. But not at a college with student debt.

Should he help bear the brunt of this debt? I believe Chief Justice Roberts recently encapsulated this thought process well: “Along comes the government and tells that person: You don’t have to pay your [student] loan, nobody’s telling the person who is trying to set up the lawn service business that he doesn’t have to pay his loan. He still does, even though his tax dollars are going to support the
forgiveness of the loan for the college graduate, who’s now going to make a lot more than him over the course of his lifetime.”

The only way student debt gets “forgiven” or “canceled” is if taxes are used to pay it. The only way our governments can have money to pay those debts is to tax people like my cousin who will never personally benefit from paying those taxes.

I think we can do better than “cancel” debt or “forgive” student loans. We need to teach people that they are responsible for their decisions and hold them accountable. We should all pay what we signed up to pay, what we promised to pay. If we don’t honor our promises, we aren’t serious people and have learned nothing with our “higher education” degrees.

Related Posts


  1. Mr. Ruehl is articulate and thoughtful. However, his essay perpetuates the myth that adults with student loans are dead beats looking for a government handout instead of willing to do the hard work necessary to pay off their student loans. Moreover, he repeats right-wing media talking points which are based upon emotion and opinion—not upon facts about the student-loan crisis in this country nor upon first-hand accounts from former students negatively impacted.

    First, the crisis was created more than a decade ago because of aggressive and predatory lending that was not transparent about loan repayment after graduation. Hundreds of thousands of former students have signed on to national websites designed to collect real-life anecdotes showing how they have been negatively impacted by these unethical lending practices.

    We need to put ourselves in the place of the young, dewy-eyed, hopeful teen or 20-something-year-old who wants to go to college but doesn’t have the funding; they are lured with the suggestion that they will be able to get a well-paying job in their chosen field that will cover their loan repayment within a 10-year time frame. But many students found that either the job didn’t pay what they expected, they couldn’t get a job in their field, or they weren’t able to complete the degree.

    For many, the monthly payments have been exorbitant, holding them back from becoming financially independent or from gradually growing their personal wealth, as would be expected by an adult entering the work force. There are estimates that loan forgiveness would substantially and positively impact the economy, by allowing millions of students to put money back into the economy. (Plus, “forgiveness” is standard financial terminology.)

    Before passing judgment, we need to examine real-world accounts, like these 3 samples:

    #1) A friend of mine, Tom, got $20,000 in loans and earned an Associates Degree. Jobs in his field were scarce, and those available were barely above minimum wage with no benefits. He found a better paying job and has paid over $24,000 toward his loans in the past decade—but still owes $15,000.

    A woman on the radio just today (NPR’s “1A” broadcast, May 18, 2023, discussing the student-loan crisis) said that her son had a variable interest rate of 3% that has now gone to 9%, and he has no hope of paying it off.

    A woman online mentioned paying for more than 10 years on a $175,000 loan. She has paid $132,000; her current payment is $1,100; and she still owes $175,000.

    You don’t have to be a mathematician to know that there is something seriously wrong with the student-loan system. Why should we continue to punish well-intentioned borrowers, to line the coffers of lenders profiting from their misfortune?

    One thing that Mr. Ruehl said is strikingly clear: “The loans have actually driven up the cost of a four-year degree.” Yes! In response, we need to find other ways to make college more affordable and to fund a college education for our young people who want one.

    Instead of saying NO to student-loan forgiveness, we need to focus upon solutions to the crisis going forward:

    1) We must create a plan to forgive the debt of those who have already paid their original principle and then some.
    2) Going forward, we must lower the interest rates to 0–1%. And we must require all lenders to show a loan amortization chart with a reasonable payment schedule that would allow paying off the loan in 10 years.
    3) We must make public universities more affordable and expand the Pell Grant program, to decrease the need for student loans.

    • W. Jamie Ruehl says:

      Ms Kennedy attempts to put words in my mouth.Calling my argument a myth where people with school loans “deadbeats” is not genuine constructive discourse, rather its inflammatory rhetoric which is purely emotional.

      While I am empathetic with Ms. Kennedys friends who have school debt, I’m calling on them to recognize they made decisions to incurr that debt. We who have taken loans from the government or any other source are NOT victims and we shouldn’t be held to a different standard.

      If your friends took loans to buy a car but chose a broken down 30 year old vehicle that quickly stops running, should the rest of us “bail them ou”t? No, just like the person who takes a loan to obtain a degree that has no utility or they fail to get their full degree, they made bad decisions to incurr debt. They may be victims of ignorance at best, but we shouldn’t reward those bad decisions with tax payer money.

Leave a Comment