Should the U.S. Forgive All $1.5 Trillion in Student Loan Debt?

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What if the entire $1.5 trillion in outstanding U.S. student loan debt was wiped off the books, no questions asked?

Blanket student loan forgiveness for all Americans is exactly what magazine publisher and editor Katrina vanden Heuvel proposed in a June 19 column for the Washington Post.

At first glance, this seems like a good idea. After all, student loan debt is causing millennials’ net worth to plummet, and many student borrowers have put off milestones such as homeownership because of their debt.

But would it be an economic boon for our country? And what obstacles could come up as a result of massive one-time student loan forgiveness? Let’s take a look at some of the ramifications.

The economic impact of massive student loan forgiveness

More than 44 million Americans have student loan debt, so the economic effect of forgiving their outstanding balances could make a difference. That’s according to Aaron Swisher, a Democrat running for the U.S. House in Idaho’s 2nd Congressional District.

“These folks spend a certain amount of money on their student loan payments each month,” said Swisher, who has a background in economics. “Without this debt, they’d be able to spend their money on other things, like cars and homes and entertainment.”

Debt cancellation could result in a boost to the U.S gross domestic product (GDP) of, on average, between $86 billion and $108 billion a year, according to a paper published by the Levy Economics Institute.

Others, though, aren’t as optimistic about what complete student loan forgiveness would mean for the economy.

“Something in the neighborhood of $80 billion a year in the economy isn’t really that much of a dent when you think about it,” said Mark Kantrowitz, an education policy expert and the vice president of research at Savingforcollege.com. “We’re talking about a GDP of right around $19 [trillion] or $20 trillion a year.”

Another long-term economic concern, said Jason Delisle, a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, deals with taxes.

“There would be some economic gain, yes, but at the same time, what if the government has to borrow to pay off a portion of it?” Delisle said. “Someone would have to pay for it later, maybe with higher taxes down the road.”

Student loan forgiveness: Morality and fairness

Adam Minsky, a student loan lawyer, agreed that there would be some economic benefit in large-scale student loan forgiveness. But he pointed out that the justification for it might not be there.

“There are other issues at play here, including the morality of it,” Minsky said. “You have to look at some of the fairness issues and what this means for students in the future.”

While Swisher, the Idaho candidate, acknowledged the potential economic and personal financial benefits of wholesale student loan forgiveness, he still doesn’t think it’s a good idea. “Morally, if you take on a debt, I think you should pay it,” he said.

However, Swisher added that “if you’re going to compare policy issues, it’s morally better to forgive $1.5 trillion in student debt than to give the wealthy a tax break that will cost us more than $1 trillion in the next 10 years.”

Delisle pointed out that many of those with student loans make efforts to repay their debt early, and it’s not fair to penalize them. “If you’re paying down loans aggressively, working an extra job or postponing a purchase like a car or house, you look like a sucker,” he said.

Not only should you repay what you owe, said Beth Akers, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, but you should also look at the policy incentives and whether a one-time student loan forgiveness program is fair to future students.

“First of all, how do you tell students starting college next year that they have to wrack up this debt, but if you had gone four years ago, it would have been free?” said Akers.

Akers went on to suggest that this proposal doesn’t address the underlying problems in paying for college. She pointed out that some students might take on more debt than they would have otherwise, hoping to benefit from a similar reprieve in the future. That, in turn, could lead educational institutions to further increase prices, because they would know that people are willing to take on the debt.

So if wiping out all of the student loan debt isn’t the answer, what should policymakers do?

Alternatives to universal student loan forgiveness

There are ways to ease the debt burden on borrowers — without sweeping student loan debt forgiveness.

1. Start with existing repayment programs

Rather than wiping out all of the student debt, Akers said we should start by looking at the programs already in place to help those struggling with student loans.

Income-driven repayment (IDR) offers a robust system for those who can’t afford their payments,” said Akers. “We need to help more borrowers understand their options so they can get relief when they can’t afford their payments.”

Delisle agreed, pointing out that loan forgiveness on an IDR plan is possible after 20 or 25 years. “All of this is done while keeping your payments up to date and without negatively impacting your credit score,” he said.

2. Bolster Pell Grants

Rather than forgiving debt after the fact, Kantrowitz would like to see improvements made to the Pell Grant program.

“Research indicates that the Pell Grant increases enrollment and graduation rates,” said Kantrowitz. “People would see better-paying jobs and put that [money] back into the economy.”

According to Kantrowitz, increasing the amount of the Pell Grant could potentially result in the equivalent of a 14% annualized return on investment over the next 40 years. “There’d be less debt burden and more people able to handle the debt they do have, as well as more in tax revenue,” he said.

3. Include student loans in bankruptcy discharge

“There’s no reason for student loan debt to be treated differently than other types of debt,” said Minsky. “We don’t force people to remain in extreme debt to the detriment of their lives with anything else. Bankruptcy can offer those who need it a fresh start.”

Rather than being a free ticket to avoid repaying student loans, Minsky pointed out that there are plenty of deterrents in place when it comes to bankruptcy proceedings. These include a negative impact on your credit, a degree of stigma, and the fact that some types of bankruptcy require additional monthly payments from borrowers.

4. Encourage livable wages

A bigger issue is the fact that, even though there’s been some recent wage growth, pay has been stagnant for so long that many Americans haven’t been able to keep up with inflation, said Swisher. He pointed to a recent report from the National Low Income Housing Coalition illustrating that there’s no state in the U.S. where someone working full time on minimum wage can afford a two-bedroom apartment.

“Our economy produces enough that an average worker should be making $100,000 a year,” Swisher said. However, he acknowledges that some jobs would clearly pay more than others. “People would be surprised at what should be their share, according to what the economy produces — and if they were getting that, student loan debt wouldn’t seem so overwhelming.”

What you can do about student loan debt

For now, it doesn’t look like you can expect massive student loan forgiveness. However, there are steps you can take to reduce your education debt load:

  • If you aren’t already in college, consider going to a less expensive school and applying for scholarships. Even if you need student loans to close the gap, you won’t need to borrow as much.
  • Consider refinancing your loans to a lower rate if you have good credit. You might be able to get a more manageable payment and reduce the interest you pay.
  • If you can’t afford your payments, talk to your loan servicer about getting on an IDR plan.
  • Look for side hustles to increase your income. That way, you can pay down your debt faster.

And if you have an opinion about forgiving $1.5 trillion in student loan debt or other policies aimed at helping borrowers, track legislation related to higher education and contact your representatives to let them know what you think.

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Our team at Student Loan Hero works hard to find and recommend products and services that we believe are of high quality and will make a positive impact in your life. We sometimes earn a sales commission or advertising fee when recommending various products and services to you. Similar to when you are being sold any product or service, be sure to read the fine print understand what you are buying, and consult a licensed professional if you have any concerns. Student Loan Hero is not a lender or investment advisor. We are not involved in the loan approval or investment process, nor do we make credit or investment related decisions. The rates and terms listed on our website are estimates and are subject to change at any time. Please do your homework and let us know if you have any questions or concerns.