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Student loan forgiveness 'doesn't solve the crisis long term,' expert explains

Aarthi Swaminathan
·Reporter
·3 min read

As talks of student loan forgiveness gain momentum as the Biden administration transitions into office, one expert stressed that the American student debt crisis goes even deeper.

Large-scale cancellation of debt “doesn't solve the crisis long term,” Kevin Carey, vice president for education policy and knowledge management at the D.C.-based think tank New America, told Yahoo Finance Live (video above). “Everyone acknowledges that if we don't change the underlying system that produced that debt in the first place, whatever debt we forgive, the total amount will just start to rise again.”

The fundamental issue, according to Carey, is a system where “the federal government printing money and lending it out based on what colleges choose to charge.”

In other words, the real problem is that the average cost of total tuition, fees, room and board rates charged for full-time undergraduate students in degree-granting institutions in the U.S. has increased more than two times the general U.S. inflation rate.

(Graphic: College Board)
(Graphic: College Board)

The argument for cancelling debt, therefore, “would be like treating a contaminated river without stopping the source of the pollution,” added Carey, who also recently penned a New York Times op-ed on the topic.

A more lasting fix to the student loan machinery, according to Carey, would involve “some stronger federal role in perhaps controlling the prices that college has charged because that ultimately determines how much money students are.”

(Graphic: David Foster)
(Graphic: David Foster)

‘Unique opportunity to right those wrongs’

The pandemic, meanwhile, could lead to deep cuts in higher education and actually reduce access to grants for many students, forcing them to take on more student debt.

Funding constraints could also widen the income gap between schools that admit most students, which depend on state funding, versus those that are more selective and generally do not, one report by Nick Hillman, an associate professor at the School of Education at the University of Wisconsin at Madison found.

(Graphic: Third Way)
(Graphic: Third Way)

New forgiveness aside, the mechanisms through which defrauded student borrowers or borrowers who served 10 years in public service (from veterans to firefighters) can apply for debt discharge have broken down, especially during the Trump administration.

“One of the most frustrating and heartbreaking things, talking to thousands and thousands of student loan borrowers over the years, is that borrowers are entitled in many instances to have their loans totally forgiven and given a second chance in their financial lives, under the system that Congress created,” Seth Frotman, head of the nonprofit Student Borrower Protection Center (SBPC), told Yahoo Finance.

What has happened over time, according to Frotman, “is that incompetence at the Department of Education and illegal practices within the student loan industry has unnecessarily and unconscionably blocked borrowers from the relief that they were promised under law.”

Then-Vice President Joe Biden gestures as he delivers the Class Day Address at Yale University in New Haven, Conn., on May 17, 2015. (AP/Jessica Hill)
Then-Vice President Joe Biden gestures as he delivers the Class Day Address at Yale University in New Haven, Conn., on May 17, 2015. (AP/Jessica Hill)

The SBPC recently published a report highlighting some of these flaws within the existing system and how it could be improved by the Biden administration.

“That promise has been broken. … [but] here is a really unique opportunity to right those wrongs,” Frotman added. “A new administration has the ability to not only fix these programs going forward, but give borrowers much needed relief and justice — those who had done everything right, who fulfilled their obligations.”

Aarthi is a reporter for Yahoo Finance. She can be reached at aarthi@yahoofinance.com. Follow her on Twitter @aarthiswami.

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