The Biden administration should prioritize student loan forgiveness

$10,000 is not enough

Andy Castillo/Daily Collegian

Andy Castillo/Daily Collegian

By Catherine Hurley, Collegian Columnist

Amid the economic fallout from COVID-19 and ongoing partisan gridlock, President Joe Biden is facing pressure from progressives to forgive up to $50,000 of student loan debt per borrower.

As president, Biden may be able to do this through executive action without the support of Congress.

At a town hall in Milwaukee last week, Biden said that he supports forgiving $10,000 of federal student loan debt per borrower, but not $50,000. He thinks that the money would be better invested in early-childhood education, free community college and free in-state tuition for families making less than $125,000 per year.

These policies are important, but they should only be the baseline. The Biden administration should cancel up to $50,000 in federal student loans to relieve the financial burden that is placed on millions of college graduates.

As of the third quarter of 2020, Americans owed more than $1.7 trillion in federal student loan debt, a figure that increased nearly four percent from the year prior. Cancelling up to $50,000 worth of loans would eliminate all student debt for 80 percent of federal borrowers.

The financial struggles caused by student loans were exacerbated during the pandemic. When payment pauses are lifted, many borrowers will be in bleak financial situations, possibly unable to pay their bills. In addition to direct stimulus payments, which provide money to spend immediately, having less or no money owed in student loans would give breathing room for people to pay for rent, medical bills or save for the next emergency.

Forgiving student loans is also an important step in closing the racial wealth gap. Systemic racism in housing, education and employment continues to make it difficult for Black families to build wealth. Four years after graduation, Black students will have double the amount in student loan debt as their white peers. This is unacceptable, and loan forgiveness is the first step to narrowing the divide.

With the Senate filibuster still intact, there are few opportunities for Biden to make substantial policy changes during his administration. Forgiving student loans is one of the best ways to cement progressive ideas in the fabric of COVID-19 recovery. Democrats need tangible results to hold onto their slim majorities in the House and Senate in 2022 and the White House in 2024.

Massachusetts lawmakers agree. On Friday, Attorney General Maura Healey led 17 Democratic attorneys general in a letter to congressional leaders, urging them to support resolutions that would call on the Biden administration to forgive $50,000 in student loans.

“Student debt cancellation can substantially increase Black and Latinx household wealth and help close the racial wealth gap,” the letter reads.

Others pressuring the Biden administration include Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Rep. Ayanna Pressley, who see the proposal as a way to help people of color, the elderly and borrowers who never graduated escape the financial burden.

Opponents will argue that loan forgiveness is not the best way to execute COVID-19 relief, and they’re right. Forgiving debt only helps people who were fortunate enough to attend college in the first place. It will not lower the unemployment numbers, support hospitals or aid in vaccine distribution. It will, however, unshackle millions of borrowers who were unable to buy a car, a house or save for retirement because of their loans. Abolishing student debt is only one step in a larger plan to provide pandemic relief.

Another criticism is that student loan forgiveness is fundamentally unfair to people who have paid off their debt already. Thus, the argument goes, why should graduates today get a handout? This is necessary because paying for a college education is far more difficult today than it has been in the past. Tuition prices have skyrocketed relative to wages, and students are pressured to attend private, elite universities, even if they cannot afford them.

Shouldn’t we be striving to leave society a little better, a little easier than we found it? Debt forgiveness, especially during a pandemic, would do just that. Debates over fairness should not get in the way of tangible solutions.

Catherine Hurley can be reached at [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter @cath_hurley.