Earlier this week, Senator Elizabeth Warren astonished the higher education community (and me in particular) by announcing three bold proposals: 1) free undergraduate education at public universities; 2) massive student-loan forgiveness, and 3) a ban on federal funding for for-profit colleges.
Student-loan debtors all over America should stand up and applaud Senator Warren. She is the first national political figure to call for an end to federal aid for the for-profit colleges. This sleazy racket gets about 90 percent of its revenues from federal student-aid money. If Congress shut off that spigot as Warren proposes, most of them would close in less than 30 days.
The for-profit college industry, with its armies of lawyers and lobbyists, has Congress in its back pocket. They surely understand that Senator Warren's proposal is an existential threat. Watch how this sleazy racket starts shifting resources to sabotage Warren's presidential bid.
On the other hand, Warren's call for free college education is not original. Senator Bernie Sanders promised free college during his 2016 presidential run and Senator Kamala Harris has put free college on her campaign platform. Nevertheless, it's a good idea.
It's Warren's third proposal, however, that is the real stunner. She's calling for massive student-loan debt forgiveness for 95 percent of student borrowers.
Senator Warren's student-loan forgiveness plan is a little complicated and has some limitations. she wants to forgive up to $50,000 in student-loan debt but would reduce this benefit for high-income families. But her basic idea is sound. Why?
First of all, millions of Americans will never pay back their student loans whether Warren's proposal is implemented or not, so we might as well forgive the debt. Almost 8 million people are in income-based repayment plans (IBRPs) that allow them to make monthly payments based on their income and not how much they owe. For most of these people (almost all of them actually), their loan payments are so small that they don't cover accruing interest. For people in IBRPs, their debt grows larger each month as interest accrues. They will never pay back the amount they borrowed.
Several million more student-loan borrowers have their loans in deferment while the interest accrues and capitalizes on their original debt. Most of those folks will never repay their loans.
Finally, there is a good argument that forgiving all this student debt--$1.56 trillion--would boost the economy. Unburdened by debt they will never repay, millions of Americans will be able to rejoin the middle class--buy houses and cars, have children, save for retirement. Indeed, a study by researchers at Bard College's Levy Institute makes that very argument.
Conservatives recoiled in horror at Warren's proposal to forgive student debt, spewing a lot of blather about the sacred nature of contract obligations, the unfairness to people who paid off their student loans, etc.
But in my view, Warren's student-loan forgiveness proposal does not go far enough. Millions of student-loan debtors are entitled to student-loan forgiveness with no $50,000 cap. And millions of parents have co-signed student loans or taken out Parent PLUS loans, and they also are entitled to relief.
So I propose a few tweaks to Senator Warren's brave proposal:
First, all Parent Plus loans should be forgiven immediately for any family with household income under $200,000. And all parents and relatives who cosigned private student loans should be relieved of any legal obligation to repay that debt.
Secondly, instead of instituting a loan-forgiveness plan, I propose that distressed student-debtors be allowed to discharge their student loans in bankruptcy as proposed in Representative John Katko's recently filed bill. People who took out student loans to go to law school and then got rich as corporate lawyers should pay back their loans. But people who otherwise qualify for bankruptcy relief should be able to discharge their student loans like any other consumer debt.
But let's not quibble about the details. Senator Warren's call for free college and student-loan forgiveness are basically good ideas. And her call for shutting off federal aid to the for-profit colleges is stunningly brave.
In my view, it is time to stop heckling Senator Warren about Cherokee-Gate. She is a serious presidential candidate who has made bold and thoughtful policy proposals. Americans should listen to what she has to say about the student-loan crisis because--let's face reality--a lot of student-loan debt will never be paid back.
Elizabeth Warren. I'm calling for something truly transformational: Universal free public college and cancellation of student loan debt. Medium, April 22, 2019.
Scott Fullwiler, Stephanie Kelton, Catherine Ruetschlin, and Marshall Steinbaum. The Macroeconomic Effects of Student Debt Cancellation. Levy Economics Institute of Bard College, February 2018.