Is canceling $50k in student debt a good idea?

Democrats argue the president has the authority under the Higher Education Act

Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., conduct a news conference on  Sept. 9. Thursday, the two unveiled a resolution that would  to forgive up to $50,000 in student debt.  (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., conduct a news conference on Sept. 9. Thursday, the two unveiled a resolution that would to forgive up to $50,000 in student debt. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Posted September 18, 2020 at 10:55am

Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., want to help ease the financial burden on the nearly 43 million people who hold federal education loans by canceling up to $50,000 in loan debt.

A proposed resolution by them outlines how a president can use authority already provided under the Higher Education Act to cancel up to that amount. Forgiving debt in a big chunk might sound like a good idea but some say loan forgiveness without other policy changes may be an uneven way to ease Americans’ pandemic stress.

The laws giving the government authority to lend money also provide “broad authorities for the management of all of those loans, including canceling those loans,” Warren said at a Thursday press event with Schumer to unveil their plan.

The lawmakers suggested that recent executive actions extending the suspension of loan payments, collections and interest on student loans until the end of the year was an example of President Donald Trump using that same authority.

She said forgiving $50,000 would wipe out the entirety of what 75 percent of Americans paying student loans owe. The plan is similar to one of Warren’s campaign platforms during her unsuccessful bid for president this year.

Trump using the power to suspend student loans during the pandemic may show that it’s possible. But whether it’s legal to cancel a big chunk of the nearly $1.5 trillion owed in student debt will be up to experts, Jason Delisle, a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and higher education financing expert.

The Department of Education did not respond to a request for comment.  

The question of legality may also take a backseat to whether it’s practical or sound political strategy.

A one-time payment from the Internal Revenue Service got checks in many Americans’ hands during the pandemic, but loan forgiveness would leave many people out, skewing the benefits to those with college and post-graduate degrees.

The method also doesn’t take into account how much of someone’s loan has been paid off, how long a borrower has paid into their loans or how much they took out in the first place.

Warren, addressing recent tensions in the U.S. and a renewed conversation over racial equality, said eliminating student debt for Americans would have an “immediate” impact on the Black-white wealth gap. 

“Canceling $50,000 of student debt would increase overall Black wealth, including non-borrowers, by 40 percent,” she said. 

People who pursue a bachelor’s degree and finish typically incur about $30,000 in debt, Delisle said. 

Democrats’ short-term embrace of forgiving loans en-masse after getting successful changes to the program in recent past administrations could prove problematic in the longer run. It could also make advocating that the government continue making loans more difficult in the future.

“This support for mass loan forgiveness just doesn’t really add up when you’re saying ‘We need to forgive this debt, but we also need to continue making new loans tomorrow,’” Delisle said. 

Warren and Schumer were part of a group of Democratic senators who helped get a provision into a House-passed $3.4 trillion COVID-19 aid bill that would cancel at least $10,000 in debt. A “skinny” Senate bill, offering only about $300 billion in new funding after offsets, did not. 

Warren and Schumer acknowledged that the resolution would likely not spur action by Trump. Instead, they said, it could happen as early as 2021, expressing optimism that Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden would be willing to act if he wins the White House.

This close to an election, proposals sometimes have a political tint, and a loan forgiveness program targeted at well-educated Americans could appear to be a motivation tactic to get educated Democratic voters out to the polls.

“If you’re looking for an off-the-shelf policy to hand fifty thousand dollars to upper middle class families with college education,” Delisle said. “This is it.”