CANCEL STUDENT DEBT: THE BEST ANSWERS TO THE TOUGHEST QUESTIONS
The Debt Collective shares some of the talking points we use when in conversation with our family and friends about student debt cancelation.
The Debt Collective — the nation’s first union of debtors fighting to abolish all household debts and transform the economy so no one has to go into debt to meet their basic needs — has been pushing for full student debt cancelation for several years. We have shifted the narrative from if student debt should be canceled to how much student debt should be canceled and when. We are winning. To keep this momentum going, we want to publicly share some of the talking points we use when in conversation with our family, friends, neighbors and elected officials.
Can Biden really cancel all federal student loans by himself? Without Congress?
Yes! Congress granted the secretary of education the authority to “compromise, waive, or release” its claims over student debtors decades ago. With “the flick of a pen” roughly $1.5 trillion of federal student loans can be canceled (source). We even wrote the executive order ourselves. We are simply demanding Biden use the power that he already possesses. In fact, Republican extremists in Congress have introduced a bill to take away Biden’s authority to cancel student debt, precisely because they know he already has the power.
Of course we support the idea of passing legislation to cancel student debt, but given the dysfunctional nature of the House and Senate, most progressive legislation has little chance of being passed (just look at Build Back Better and voting rights, unfortunately). We don’t need to let our gridlocked Congress get in the way of student debt cancellation. After all, in 1965 Congress already granted the president and Secretary of Education the ability to cancel federal loans. Biden himself voted several times to reauthorize this authority.
Why should college be free and student loans be canceled?
Student loans should be canceled because they are immoral and illegitimate. Education is a public good. All of us benefit when someone gets an education. All of us are harmed when someone is forced to mortgage their future for an education. We recognize this for “lower” education, there is no reason to think differently of “higher” education.
Student debt is holding tens of millions of people back. It’s holding them back from taking career risks, starting projects, having families, and owning homes. Canceling student debt would boost the economy and improve everyone’s lives, even those without debt.
Full student debt cancelation is also politically necessary. Joe Biden’s approval ratings among younger voters are low — and getting lower. The Democrats need to show voters, especially younger voters, that they matter. Everyone now knows that Joe Biden has the power to cancel all student debt. Not doing so, or not doing so for everyone, will alienate rather than empower people whose votes the Democrats desperately need.
Student debt is preventing people from helping each other. Large student debt balances force people to pursue education that will make them more money rather than serve them or their communities. Large debt balances force lawyers to work for corporate interests rather than public ones. They force doctors to take high paying jobs in big cities rather than working in underserved communities. Debt cancelation will free people to learn what they want to learn, to do what they want to do, and to serve their communities free from the chains of debt.
If Biden cancels all federal student debt, will those canceled debts be taxed?
No. The American Rescue Plan includes a provision to make this explicit: any student debt canceled between Dec 31, 2020, and Jan 1, 2026 will be tax-free (source).
Why Isn’t 10k or 50k of cancellation enough?
For millions of borrowers, many of whom owe six figures, 10k or 50k of relief barely provides a dent in the amount of debt they hold. Once again, the 50k figure is based on data from 2016, and the scholars behind that research are now arguing for 75k of relief because there has been an exponential increase in debt in recent years, particularly among Black and Latinx borrowers (source). There are no good reasons for leaving some people saddled with debt. This debt is illegitimate and every penny needs to be abolished. For 83% of Black borrowers, canceling $10k of debt still leaves them with balance higher than their original amount.
Isn’t it mostly rich people who have student debt — doctors and lawyers and people with graduate degrees? So canceling student debt would be basically a policy to help rich people?
Actually, most rich people don’t have student debt — they (or more likely their parents) can just write a check for their tuition! People with student debt are generally poor, working class or middle class — everyone who doesn’t have tens of thousands of dollars available to pay for tuition. Generally speaking, the poorer you are, the more debt you are forced to take on to get an education. Because poor people have to borrow more money, they also typically carry their loans for longer and therefore pay more in interest. The same college degree costs poor people more than it does rich people!
Contrary to the stereotype that canceling student debt only helps successful professionals, the fact is 40% of people who have student loans don’t have a college degree to show for it (source). That means millions of people are burdened by debt without reaping the benefits that come from having completed a degree program. (And chances are they didn’t finish school because they were working multiple low-wage jobs, etc.)
Canceling student debt doesn’t solve the real problem of rising tuition.
Amen. That’s why we must pass College For All to fully fund all public universities so that everyone can get an education without taking on debt. This is the only real solution, but Biden can’t do this immediately on his own. Biden can cancel all federal student debt immediately.
We can’t go back and make college free for everyone who already graduated or is enrolled. But we can cancel the debt. Canceling student debt can be a retroactive version of free college.
How are we going to pay for this?
Canceling student debt doesn’t cost anything and won’t raise your taxes. In fact, it will provide an economic boost that everyone will benefit from. The money lent to borrowers is already out the door, and the government knows that it won’t get a lot of it back. We can cancel the debt now and reap the economic benefits, or we can wait, cancel the growing debt under existing programs (including when borrowers die). If we cancel it now, we all win. If we wait, much of the same debt gets canceled, but only after people have suffered for decades and we’ve missed out the benefits.
Aren’t there better ways to stimulate the economy?
Yes, but we can’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good and possible. Canceling student debt is the only way that Biden can actually accomplish this goal without Joe Manchin or Mitch McConnell getting in the way. He has the power to actually do this.
Won’t debt cancelation drive up inflation?
No, and it hasn’t so far. Analysts estimate that each full-year student debt pause has added only .2 percentage points to inflation–the White House estimate is even lower. That’s just .2% of the 8.5% inflation the U.S. saw in March this year. The amount of savings returned to student loan borrowers pockets is life-changing for borrowers, but it’s a tiny fraction of American consumer spending and not nearly enough to add much to existing inflation pressures (source).
Pundits and policymakers who suggest we should reduce demand amid inflation are saying we should push low-income people, Black and Brown people, and women further into financial distress. These borrowers are already more likely to struggle to make student loan payments (source). Now is the time to broaden relief so these groups can still afford basic necessities, NOT to reinstate payments (source).
What does the public think about canceling student debt?
Canceling student debt is extremely popular. A majority of Americans support student debt cancelation, including those who have no student debt or have already paid off their student loans (source). Nearly one in five Trump voters said they would consider voting for a Democrat if the Democrats canceled all student debt (source). Another poll determined that 40% of Black voters would consider staying home for the next election if there’s no action on student loan debt (source).
Instead of canceling student debt, shouldn’t we just expand the existing relief programs?
No. We’ve tried this and it has failed spectacularly. Today, after some reforms, the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program rejects more than 95% of applications. Before the reforms, 99.5% were rejected (source). Only 127 people have ever gotten any debt canceled as a part of an “income driven repayment” plan (source). Income driven repayment plans have failed to prevent defaults and especially fail Black borrowers (source). Only 50% of households eligible for income driven repayment are enrolled in it due in part to prohibitive administrative burdens (source). Instead of investing precious resources and energy in the machinery of federal debt collection we should invest it in students.
Why don’t we means-test student loan cancellation or “free” college?
Student loan debt, by design, is already means-tested: the rich have no student debt. And the government’s ongoing issues with their failing relief programs show those don’t work, either. We need to cancel all student loan debt.
All of us benefit when someone gets an education. All of us are harmed when someone is forced to mortgage their future for an education. It is a public good. We already support K-12 for all regardless of income. We can and should build on this model and make college free for all.
What about people who already paid back their student debt? Is canceling student debt unfair to them?
First, there is a good chance they paid a lot less to go to college so it may have been much easier for them to pay down their debt. A few generations ago, college often cost nothing or very little, but now the cost keeps rising year after year (source).
Second, we are sorry that some people have been forced to pay back debt that never should have existed in the first place. But we cannot halt social progress because it is somehow unfair to people who suffered before us. Instead, let’s make sure this never happens to anyone else again by canceling all student debt and fully funding public higher education in the future.
If Biden cancels student debt, can the next president put it right back in place?
No. Student debt is based on contracts between the government and each individual student. If the government says student debtors don’t owe any more money, then that’s it, they don’t owe any more money. Their balances are zero, the contracts are fulfilled. The only way for a future administration to put people back into debt would be to enter into new contracts with each person.
What’s the difference between “CANCELING” student debt and “FORGIVING” student debt?
Student debtors have nothing to be “sorry” for. We didn’t do anything wrong! We aren’t asking for student debt “forgiveness.” We’re demanding student debt cancelation. Student debt elimination. Student debt relief. Student debt justice. A student debt jubilee. Student debt abolition. If anyone has anything to be sorry for, it’s the federal government. They should be begging 45M Americans and our communities for forgiveness. It’s the Department of Education and predatory for-profit colleges who should be sorry, not us.
Words to Avoid When Talking About Student Debt
Avoid ableist language. For example, we don’t refer to student debt as “crippling” or “handicapping.” Instead we could talk about it being crushing, or a burden, or talk about the way that it disciplines our lives and limits our freedom.
We also don’t use the term “consumer” debt. Instead, we call this household debt. The reality is, individuals don’t often pay for their public goods or even their own incarceration alone. Grandma and grandpa, parents, siblings, and even our children often contribute to help fund the cost of college, health care, housing, or to help bail us out of jail. The term household debt or community debt uses a framework that represents how communities actually fund things. Plus, we are not mere consumers of education and health care and don’t think of reaping the benefits of public goods as a commodity we should “pay” for.