Student loan forgiveness sounds like a good deal to many debtors, but since President Joe Biden suggested some form of federal student loan forgiveness, experts and debtors have been debating what that should look like.
“There isn't an American Dream anymore, especially if you went to college and had to borrow for it,” said Tracy Musick, who earned her master’s degree in library science from North Carolina Central University in 2011.
“I was actually in a better position when I was selling makeup, and didn't have a degree at all,” Musick said, adding that she would like to own a house and prosper on her own, but feels like she is weighed down by the debt.
Biden has suggested student loan debt forgiveness but has not yet published specific measures. Democratic Senators Chuck Schumer of New York and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts have proposed up to $50,000 in debt forgiveness, but no legislation has been formalized.
“The President continues to support the canceling of student debt to bring relief to students and families,” Biden press secretary Jen Psaki tweeted on February 4. “Our team is reviewing whether there are any steps he can take through executive action, and he would welcome the opportunity to sign a bill sent to him by Congress.”
But economic experts say the words “loan forgiveness” may lead to inaccurate assumptions.
“Overall, we find balance forgiveness to be a highly regressive policy,” wrote Sylvain Catherine, professor of finance at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, and Constantine Yannelis, a professor at the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business, in The Distributional Effects of Student Loan Forgiveness.
Catherine and Yannelis say debtors in upper economic levels would receive a greater benefit than economically disadvantaged debtors, who need the relief the most, Catherine said in a Wharton podcast.
“If a comprehensive loan-forgiveness program were passed, we calculate that the average person in the top 10% of earners would receive $5,944 in forgiveness, while the average individual in the bottom 10 percent of earners would receive $1,070,” they wrote in The Washington Post.
Catherine told VOA that enrolling more people in income-driven repayment plans is better for the bottom 30% than forgiving $10,000, and it also is less expensive to taxpayers.
Student debt is a fierce topic for many Americans because it is larger than all credit card debt. Outstanding student loan debt is held by nearly 43 million people, totaling more than $1.5 trillion, according to Federal Student Aid. Many debtors say they cannot move on with life milestones, such as getting married, having children or buying a home, under so much debt.
Experts at the Brookings Institution in Washington point out that one-third of all student loan debt is owed by only 6% of borrowers, typically students pursuing or who achieved their master’s and doctoral degrees.
Cody Hounanian is a student debtor and program director at Student Debt Crisis, a nonprofit dedicated to reforming student debt and loan policies for higher education. Founded in 2011, it advocates for private and federal student loan borrowers in the U.S. and works with other national groups.
Student Debt Crisis and more than 325 organizations re-released a letter February 5 calling on Biden to forgive student loan debt.
“As a group that represents 2 million supporters with very diverse perspectives and experiences … we are very supportive of [forgiving] $50,000 in student loan debt,” Hounanian said.
Another strategy, Hounanian said, might include debt restructuring, meaning borrowers with high interest rates would be able to refinance at lower rates, similar to what homeowners do with their mortgages as those bank interest rates drop.
“I look at this as another common-sense solution because anyone with any other type of loan — including a car loan, or a home loan — they're familiar with the idea of refinancing,” he said.
A report by the Association of Community College Trustees in December 2020 found that, in the case of Valencia College students in Orlando, Florida, those who defaulted on their loans typically suffered academically.
“Default does not impact all borrowers equally: Students who have stopped out or who have completed some college credits but have not yet earned a degree or credential are especially at risk for default,” the report stated.
“Non-traditional-age students, students of color and low-income students are also at greater risk,” it stated. “The median defaulter owes less than $10,000, and students with the smallest amounts of debt are the most likely to default.”
As of 2019, Musick owed about $80,000 in federal loans for her master’s degree — plus at least $3,000 in interest. She said she currently is not sure how much she owes exactly.
“All of the payments that I've made have only been to interest — none of it has touched the principal,” she said. “That means that my loan is actually growing.”
But some others see student loan forgiveness in a different light.
“I’ve paid off nearly all of my student loan debt in the last 10 months and NOW there is talk of canceling it?!” Maria Ducato, of Florida, tweeted with a .gif of Friends actor Matthew Perry repeatedly banging his head against a plank.
“What about the people [like me] who minimized their need for student loans and then paid back those loans like a responsible adult?” replied Julie Coffman to Psaki’s tweet.