Last week President Biden announced a first-of-its-kind student debt forgiveness plan that quickly prompted debate, criticism and support along the way. Overall, the policy is a strong win, and the following considers three key takeaways of why, offering context for the scope of forgiveness, the fairness and proof that shifting public opinion can help sway policy decisions.
No. 1: For many borrowers, it’s student loan interest forgiveness, not principal loan forgiveness.
While headlines have prominently featured the policy as student loan forgiveness, many borrowers will effectively see no change to the amount they owed based on their principal loans. What they will see in many cases, however, is relief from exorbitant interest rates that should have never existed in the first place.
The average borrower of student loans faces $37,667 of debt. Interest rates on federal direct subsidized or unsubsidized loans currently range from 4.99% to 7.54%, depending on the type of degree and parent involvement, with private loans reaching interest as high as 13%. Pell Grant recipients — those who are eligible for the additional $10,000 in relief — have slightly lower interest rates, although they remain too high based on income brackets.
Given today’s cost of college, such high interest rates are deeply debilitating to most borrowers, particularly when coupled with the strong increased cost of living that hasn’t kept up with most salaries. Assuming the average amount of debt with the lowest federal interest rate and a 10-year repayment plan, the borrower would owe roughly $400 per month for a total of $47,919.95. That’s $10,252.95 more than their original debt amount, assuming no payments are missed and not taking into account any interest they may have already accrued in the original debt.
If the same borrower then receives $10,000 in relief, this bill is reduced to a still-significant $293.92 per month for a total payment of $35,197.95 over 10 years — a number within eerie, striking distance from the original loan amount.
Considered this way, many borrowers will ultimately see the equivalent of student loan interest forgiveness, while others will see a mix of interest and partial loan reduction depending on the amount of their original loan and how much time has passed. Regardless, it remains true that most borrowers will still be paying off far too much in college loans, even with this plan.
No. 2: Yes, it’s fair to forgive student debt, even if you didn’t go to college.
The list of grievances from opponents is long. From rants on personal responsibility to frustrations from those without degrees to Boomers who insist nothing has changed in the past 40 years, most arguments boil down to a sentiment of “It’s not fair. I suffered, so you should, too.” Are we really so selfish as a nation that we would insist others must suffer because we did? Is reducing suffering to improve outcomes for the next generation not the goal?
The cost of college simply isn’t what it used to be. Student loans have been predatory for a long time, housed within a system that has been designed to capitalize off the need for educated workers. College isn’t just a choice; it’s necessary for critical professions such as teachers, accountants, nurses and more. Given that people with and without college degrees rely on such professions, it remains more than fair to offer reasonable assistance.
No. 3: Polls show the majority of Americans support student debt forgiveness.
Despite political fear mongering from opponents, multiple national polls show the vast majority of Americans now support either some or all student debt forgiveness plans. These polls also now show strong public support for lowering the cost of college overall, a sentiment that will require additional steps to address.
Notably, this is a change from prior polling that showed mixed support in recent years, proving that Americans are evolving on policy and that policymakers are listening.
Trish Zornio is a scientist, lecturer and writer who has worked at some of the nation’s top universities and hospitals. She’s an avid rock climber and was a 2020 candidate for the U.S. Senate in Colorado.