For the past two years, Americans who hold student-loan debt have had a reprieve. At the outset of the pandemic, lawmakers agreed that a pause on debt payments was in order; this stopgap measure has been extended six times. The current restart date is slated for the end of August, though experts already suspect that politicians will want to wait until after the midterm elections.
Eventually, though, policymakers will have to figure out what to do about the $1.6 trillion in student debt. Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts has been one of the most prominent voices calling for outright cancellation. Alongside Senator Chuck Schumer, Warren has called for the president to erase up to $50,000 in student-loan debt per borrower, arguing that doing so would help close the racial wealth gap. (Studies have shown that Black borrowers are more likely to take on student debt, more likely to accrue more student debt, and more likely to default on those loans whether they finish a college program or not.)
Debt cancellation, however, has no shortage of critics. There are those who argue that it would be a giveaway to the wealthy, a slap in the face to those who have paid off their loans, or a castigation of those who did not attend college in the first place. On Tuesday, I spoke with Warren about such criticism, why she believes student debt should be canceled, and how to prevent a debt situation like this from happening again. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Adam Harris: In the past month, several criticisms of the broader student-loan-debt-cancellation conversation have been raised. First, some argue that students assume this debt in the same way that people take on mortgages, and that student debt should be treated in the same way as other investments. Why should student debt be treated differently than some of those other debts?
Elizabeth Warren: Education debt is unlike any other form of debt that Americans incur. It’s mostly taken on by people who are not even in their 20s. It’s to get an education—and the thing that most parents and teachers and aunties and neighbors have been pounding into these kids’ heads for years is that an education is a ticket into America’s middle class. These are not people who ran off to the mall and charged up expensive sneakers and stereo systems. These are people who tried to do everything they were told was the right way to build a secure future.
Also, look at it from the point of view of people in their 40s and 50s, who went back to school to try to get a diploma or maybe an additional credential like a master’s degree, so they’d have a chance to compete better at work, or to get a job after they’d been laid off. Treating people who take on debt to try to get an education the same as people who take on debt for any consumer good is missing the whole point of how education is not only a benefit, personally, to the person who gets it but also a benefit for our whole country.
You know, I’ll just back up for a minute here. When the returning GIs made it back [after World War II], there were enormously generous benefits given so they could get post-high-school education. Now, there was a huge racial element to it, and many Black soldiers and sailors were cheated out of their benefits. But for those who were able to get the benefits, it not only propelled their families forward; subsequent data show that it benefited the entire economy. The boom of the ’50s and ’60s and even into the ’70s was the direct result of having a better-educated workforce.
There was a time in this country when it was possible to get a post-high-school education without taking on debt. I went to a four-year college and got a diploma for $50 a semester in tuition. That was the University of Houston. And that no longer exists, because American taxpayers are not making the front-end investment in those schools. I might feel very differently about student-loan debt if everyone in this country had an opportunity for post-high-school technical training, two-year college, or four-year college at a price someone could pay for on a part-time waitressing job, but since that’s not the reality, then the nation needs to deal with the enormous debt burden that we have put on an entire generation.
Harris: Speaking of who holds that debt burden, another criticism is that debt cancellation is a giveaway to the rich. Why wouldn’t $50,000 in debt cancellation, as you’ve proposed, be a sort of wealth transfer to lawyers and doctors and folks who could afford to pay back their loans?
Warren: Who borrows money to go to college in the first place? People whose families can’t afford to cut a check to send them to school.
Yes, a greater share of student debt is held by those with higher incomes—that’s relative to a lot of people who never went to college at all. But these are people who did everything right. Those who argue that cancellation is regressive only get that result when they look at income, not wealth. But wealth matters more when we’re thinking about student debt. Low-income students who borrow to attend college may end up with higher incomes, but they have lower wealth. Low wealth is what’s holding them back from buying a home or opening a business or creating long-term financial stability.
When you look at wealth—let me underscore that—the majority of loans are held by those with zero household wealth. The median federal-student-loan debt for borrowers in the lowest wealth quintile is twice as high as the median federal-student-loan debt for borrowers in the highest wealth quintile. Only 4 percent in the wealthiest 10 percent have student-loan debt compared with nearly 20 percent of the bottom three wealth quintiles. So it is not regressive.
In fact, do you know what proportion of Harvard students borrow [federal] money to go to school?
Harris: It has to be less than 5 percent.
Warren: It’s 2 percent. What proportion of University of Delaware students borrow money to go to school? Fifty-five percent. And what proportion of Grambling State students borrow money to go to school?
Harris: I’ll say 80 percent.
Warren: Ninety percent. Now put those three up next to each other and tell me how canceling student-loan debt is regressive.
Harris: Well, that brings to mind another question: If you cancel student debt, how do you prevent this sort of massive debt burden from accruing again, assuming the system stays the same?
Warren: Ah yes, we need to link two things together: deal with the student-loan debt that is currently crushing people and find a reasonable way to pay for college going forward. The second part, the Department of Education is working on, and that’s income-based repayment plans.
Now, the current version of the income-based repayment plan, frankly, has been a mess: tangled up, harder for people to get relief at the end, negative amortization. It’s been run in a way that looks a lot like the subprime-mortgage scam. But it doesn’t have to be run that way. And the Department of Education is currently, as you and I speak, reworking that program so that when a person accrues debt to go to school, they have a manageable payment when they get out. And at the end of a period of repayment, whatever amount is left is discharged, so there’s no buildup on the other end.
Harris: One of the last things I wanted to ask about was the legal justification for Joe Biden writing off debt. Some argue that logic is flawed and suggest there may be court challenges on the back end if the Department of Education ultimately does end up canceling that debt. How do you respond to the critics who say that the president’s plan may not hold up in court?
Warren: I’m pretty sure that the president of the United States can cancel student-loan debt, because Barack Obama has done it, Donald Trump has done it, and Joe Biden has done it to the tune of tens of billions of dollars. The original authorizing language that created a program so that the federal government could lend money for people to go to school has very broad language in it about the ability to rewrite and renegotiate the terms of those loans.
And think about it for a minute: It makes perfect sense. When you borrow money from the bank, and you go back to the bank and say, “I want to pay it early”—or “I can’t pay it all,” or “I have my toes on the threshold of bankruptcy”—the bank, your creditor, always has the power to say, “Okay, here’s what I’m willing to do: I can cut a little off here; I can change the interest rate over there; I can forgive the principal.” The creditor has the power to forgive debt in every debtor-creditor relationship. I mean, that’s how they’re set up. It’s a statutory matter. You know, I taught debtor-creditor law for 25 years, and this is, like, the most basic piece of it.
The second thing is: Who exactly is going to sue? There has to be an injured party. And I’m not sure who thinks they’re gonna have standing to sue because they don’t like a policy. That doesn’t give you standing in a lawsuit. So I’m just—I’ve heard this before, and I don’t know why they haven’t already sued if they think they’ve got such a darn good lawsuit out there. They’ve had plenty of opportunities.