The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Forgiving student loans the wrong way will only worsen inequality

Joe Biden and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) during a presidential primary debate in Los Angeles on Dec. 19.
Joe Biden and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) during a presidential primary debate in Los Angeles on Dec. 19. (Justin Sullivan/AFP/Getty Images)
Placeholder while article actions load

SOME 45 MILLION individuals in the United States owe $1.6 trillion in debt for college and graduate school tuition. They owe the vast majority of it to the federal government, so the obvious way to ease this burden on them, and a drag on the economy, is government-ordered debt cancellation, perhaps through executive action by President-elect Joe Biden after Jan. 20. Or so many Democrats urge, with Sens. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) pushing a plan to forgive up to $50,000 per borrower.

We hope Mr. Biden says no — and explains that such wholesale debt relief is actually the antithesis of progressive policy. Most benefits would flow to upper-income households, which, despite the undeniable burden of debt for lower-income families, actually owe a disproportionate share of the total dollars. Sixty-four percent of U.S. adults age 25 and over do not even have a college degree, though that includes some who attended, and paid for, college but did not finish. What’s more, those who finish college are better positioned than others to earn more, so it’s hardly unfair to expect them to draw on this “education premium” to pay their debt.

Sylvain Catherine of the University of Pennsylvania and Constantine Yannelis of the University of Chicago lend support to these points in a new analysis that emphasizes the value of debt relief to borrowers in light of real-world program rules and standard “present value” accounting. They find that debt forgiveness plans, whether universal or capped at $50,000 as Mr. Schumer and Ms. Warren propose, “are highly regressive, with the vast majority of benefits accruing to high-income individuals.” Even a plan capped at $10,000 would disproportionately favor upper-income Americans, though it should be noted that the specific $10,000 plan Mr. Biden floated during the campaign applied only to public-college undergraduate loans and phased out for households above $125,000 in income.

Nor would debt cancellation do much to close the Black-White wealth gap, according to the Catherine-Yannelis analysis — a somewhat surprising finding given the fact that Black borrowers tend to have higher student-loan balances, on average, than Whites. While debt forgiveness would indeed improve the net worth of individual Black borrowers significantly, the benefits to White borrowers offset this, arguably exacerbating the wealth gap. A $50,000-per-household plan, for example, would confer 70 percent of benefits on White borrowers and 20 percent on Black borrowers. The cost of such a plan is unknown, though the Congressional Budget Office priced one $10,000 debt relief plan at between $250 billion and $300 billion.

As it happens, a seemingly modest change the analysis considered would have the most progressive impact, including in terms of the racial wealth gap: making sure that everyone who qualifies enrolls in an existing plan that links debt repayment to a borrower’s income. Such plans, the study concludes, “are a useful tool for targeted loan forgiveness, and the benefits of this forgiveness largely accrue to middle-income individuals.” If the next president does not want to shower tax dollars on people who don’t need aid, but wants to do something useful — there is a way.

Read more:

The Post’s View: There’s a ray of hope the Senate could at last secure bipartisan pandemic aid

Elizabeth Warren: What a Biden-Harris administration should prioritize on its first day

Helaine Olen: Biden could forgive $10,000 of student loan debt. But that doesn’t address the bigger issue.

Adam Looney: Biden shouldn’t listen to Schumer and Warren on student loans

Josh Rogin: Inside Ivanka Trump’s failed attempt to have Congress secure her legacy