America’s students have a debt problem. A big one. More than 45 million Americans – more than the population of California – now owe a collective $1.7tn in student debt.
What to do about that debt has become a hot political issues as midterm elections approach.
The vast majority of the money is owed to the federal government, which has been backing or directly offering student loans for higher education since 1958. While student loans are not new in the United States, the amount of student debt has more than tripled over the last 16 years.
The Biden administration has recently hinted that some form of student debt forgiveness could be announced soon – specifically, canceling at least $10,000 in student debt for Americans earning less than $125,000 a year. With that threshold, most student loan borrowers will qualify for some debt forgiveness.
If the executive action is undertaken, it will be the first large debt cancellation by the federal government to address the student debt crisis. Understanding the impact of such a dramatic policy requires unpacking the student debt crisis, beginning with its origins.
How the student debt crisis started
In 1957 the Soviet Union successfully launching the first earth-orbiting satellite, Sputnik. With the cold war raging the federal government feared the US education system was failing to produce enough scientists and engineers to compete with the Soviets and, in 1958, started handing out student loans through the National Defense Education Act.
Nearly a decade later, the Higher Education Act of 1965 allowed more people to take out loans as the federal government promised to pay back banks for any loans that were not repaid.
“It all started from this choice, which I think was a terrible choice, to decide that as a policy matter we should support higher education … by giving [students] an opportunity to get a loan,” said Dalié Jimenez, professor of law and director of the Student Loan Law Initiative at the University of California at Irvine. “It was just a terrible mistake.”
Starting in 2010, the federal government started directly lending money to student borrowers. In the wake of the Great Recession, the amount of student debt began to increase rapidly. Colleges were seeing increased enrollment as people left the workforce to go back to school. States slashed their higher education budgets, leading to higher tuition. More students were turning to for-profit colleges, which tend to be more expensive than public colleges.
Over the last few years, the amount of grant aid, which does not need to be paid back, has risen. Yet despite this appearance of more financial support for students to attend college, the cost of attendance has remained the same.
The cost of attending public college has actually increased at a higher rate than the cost to attend a private college. The net cost of attendance for four-year public colleges, which takes into account any grants students receive, went from $17,500 in 2006 to $20,210 in 2016, according to data from College Board.
“That era 10 years ago was a really formative moment for producing a lot of debt that’s still out there,” said Kevin Miller, associate director for higher education at the Bipartisan Policy Center’s Economic Policy Project. “The cost of college attendance has gone up a lot while household incomes in the United States haven’t … there’s a real sense that if grant, state or institutional aid isn’t filling the gap, that just leaves debt as the only option.”
What student debt looks like today
For the 2021-2022 school year, the average cost of tuition and fees for a four-year public college is $10,740. The cost is nearly quadrupled for private institutions, at an average of $38,070. Even with grant aid, the cost of attendance is an average of $19,230 for public institutions and $32,720 at private schools.
Estimates put the average debt of those in the class of 2019 who took out student loans at $28,950. The number is close to the maximum $31,000 that students who are dependents of parents or guardians can borrow from the federal government to fund undergraduate education.
Continuing racial wealth disparities are reflected in who has to take out loans to fund college. About half of Black college students take out student loans, compared with 40% of white students. Black Americans owe an average of $25,000 more in debt than their white counterparts and are more likely to be behind on their payments.
Despite the amount of debt many students need to take on to attend college, nearly 20 million Americans still enroll in college every year. While earnings can depend on a person’s industry, those with a bachelor’s degrees earn 75% more in their lifetime than those with just a high school diploma.
“The message is you have to get a college degree. It’s not just a rhetorical message, it’s an actual truth that if you don’t have a college degree, particularly if you are Black or brown … you will not be able to get a job that is better than your parents’,” Jimenez said.
Those with graduate and professional degrees earn even more, but the price for an advanced degree is even higher. A good chunk of student debt – about 40% – is held by those who took out loans to pay for graduate school.
What the government has done to address student debt
The most substantial policy addressing student debt was first implemented by the Trump administration, which paused student loan payments and interest accrual at the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic. Both Trump and Biden extended the pause over the last two years, and it is now set to expire on 31 August.
Since the beginning of this year, Biden has announced a slate of additional policies alongside the pause extension. Those who have defaulted or are delinquent on their federal student loans will be returned to good standing. Biden forgave $415m in student debt for borrowers who attended predatory for-profit schools.
His administration also announced changes to the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program, which forgives the student loans of borrowers who are non-profit and government employees after 10 years of debt or after 120 payments are made. Over 113,000 borrowers with a cumulative $6.8bn in debt are now eligible for forgiveness. Over the years, the program has been under much criticism, as relief through the program was rare and borrowers were often deemed not qualified for logistical reasons.
The debate over debt forgiveness
Even as it seems Biden is prepared to cancel some debt, the idea has gotten some criticism over the last few months.
Republicans have been using student debt as a talking point against Biden as the midterm elections start rolling.
Senator Mitt Romney suggested that Democrats canceling student loans is a way of bribing voters. “Other bribe suggestions: Forgive auto loans? Forgive credit card debt? Forgive mortgages?” he wrote on Twitter. JD Vance (who went to Yale Law School) told the Washington Post that “Biden essentially wants blue-collar workers like truck drivers – who didn’t have the luxury of going to college to get drunk for four years – to bail out a bunch of upper-middle-class kids.”
The reality is that the student loans of those in the highest income quartile – people making more than $97,000 – do make up a third of all outstanding student debt. But many low-income Americans also have student debt, though the amount of debt they have is smaller. Those making below $27,000 a year make up 17% of all borrowers, but their loans comprise 12% of all the outstanding debt.
An income threshold could be a way for the government to target forgiveness to those who need it most. But some have pointed out that an income ceiling does not take into consideration a person’s wealth.
“You’re looking at a snapshot of what your income was this year or last year, that tells you very little,” Jimenez said. “If your family has no wealth, you’re very differently situated from someone who has family wealth or personal wealth from previous careers.”
Those who have been advocating for student debt cancellation say that $10,000 in forgiveness will not be enough to address the breadth of the crisis. Democratic lawmakers, including Senate majority leader Chuck Schumer, Senator Elizabeth Warren and Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, have called on Biden to cancel up to $50,000.
“I don’t believe in a cutoff, especially for so many of the frontline workers who are drowning in debt and would likely be excluded from relief,” Ocasio-Cortez told the Washington Post. “Canceling $50,000 in debt is where you really make a dent in inequality and the racial gap. $10,000 isn’t.”
Ending the student debt crisis for good
Even if Biden forgives some student debt, future college students will continue to take out loans – and at higher interest rates. Tackling the price tag of college will come with its own complications, but advocates say it will be necessary to ensure student debt does not get worse.
While Biden’s plan for free community college was killed along with the rest of the social and climate spending bill that was making its way through Congress, some efforts for better college funding are happening at the local level.
In March, the governor of New Mexico signed a bill that would use $75m in state funds to cover tuition and fees for undergraduate students at two- and four-year colleges. Drives for similar government support have been seen in Pennsylvania, California and Maine.
“The cost of college is too high for a lot of students to manage without debt. Making it so that students can go without debt or take less debt in the first place is the thing that we really need to be focusing on,” Miller said. “What about the next generation or the one after that?”
This article was amended on 26 May 2022. An earlier version stated that student debt had doubled over 16 years. In fact, it has more than tripled.
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