At a CNN town hall on Tuesday night, President Biden was asked if he supported the idea of forgiving up to $50,000 of student loan debt for individuals.
His answer: No. He supports cancelling $10,000 in debt, he explained. But he said he is wary of erasing big chunks of loans for people who went to Ivy League schools: “The idea that … I’m going to forgive the debt, the billions of dollars in debt, for people who have gone to Harvard and Yale and Penn …”
Instead, he explained, he’d rather use that money for other priorities, like early childhood education or making community college free.
But here’s the problem: Regardless of the broader question about whether loan forgiveness is a good idea, Biden’s comments do not reflect the true picture of the $1.6 trillion owed by federal student borrowers, or of the borrowers who would benefit most from forgiveness.
Most student loan borrowers did not go to a highly selective colleges, because most students do not go to those schools. People who go to Ivy League schools represent less than 0.5% of the nearly 15 million undergraduate college students in the U.S., and a lot of them don’t have to take out student loans to do it.
“Misperceptions that higher education graduates are all from elite institutions are pervasive, and do not help educate the public about the value of postsecondary education,” says Fenaba Addo, an associate professor who studies student loan debt at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.
Think about it: Students who do go to the most selective schools tend to come from wealthy families, and many pay full tuition. Last year, 54% of undergraduates at the University of Pennsylvania, for example, didn’t even qualify for financial aid, according to data from the school. At Harvard, the number was 45%.
These highly selective colleges have long struggled to enroll students who aren’t from the top tier of wealth in this country. A new report shows that, even today, low-income students who qualify for federal Pell grants make up less than 16% of enrollment at many of these schools.
And, for students at these institutions who do need financial aid? Many offer financial aid packages aimed at keeping students free from federal student loans. At Harvard, only 2% of the undergrad population receives any federal student loans, according to the College Scorecard.
Instead of focusing, as Biden did, on who shouldn’t get the benefit, we should be focusing on who would really benefit from loan forgiveness, argues Jalil Mustaffa Bishop, a researcher at the University of Pennsylvania.
He says using the Ivy Leagues to argue for a much smaller amount of debt reduction, or none at all, is misleading: “The idea that small-level, or no debt cancellation is the best way forward because a trivial amount of rich people may benefit is a talking point to distract,” he says. Households with student debt tend to have the least amount of wealth, federal data shows. The people who struggle to repay their student loans tend to be those that didn’t graduate and have small debt amounts.
“If [Biden] is concerned that the rich or elite will benefit,” Bishop adds, then there are policy approaches to deal with that: “He can focus on increasing taxes on households making over $400,000 as he promised during his campaign.”
Bishop’s research focuses on the burden of debt on Black borrowers, who are often the ones hardest hit by student debt. They face labor market discrimination, higher rates of unemployment, lower family wealth and other forms of systemic racism.
He argues that the $50,000 figure for loan forgiveness could go a long way towards reducing the inequalities in a system that both forces Black families to take out more debt, and to have more difficulty paying those loans back.
Addo, at UNC-Chapel Hill, agrees: “We know that Black borrowers struggle with repayment independent of their institution type and whether or not they completed a degree.”
And so her advice for President Biden the next time he’s asked about this issue? If you only get three sentences to talk about debt forgiveness, she says, “why not acknowledge that a 1.7 trillion dollar debt is an indication of a serious problem.”