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How Much Are You Willing to Spend on Student Loan Forgiveness?


May 6, 2024

Last Wednesday, the Biden administration announced $6.1 billion in student debt cancellation for over 300,000 borrowers who attended the Art Institutes, a defunct network of for-profit colleges that, according to the Department of Education, defrauded borrowers.

This cancellation is generous—all borrowers, regardless of their current economic circumstances, who attended the Art Institutes between 2004 and 2017 will have their student loans cancelled—but it rests on firmer legal footing than some of the Biden administration’s other cancellation efforts. The Borrower Defense program allows for student loan cancellation in certain cases where universities misled borrowers, and while this is a maximalist solution, there were real problems with Art Institutes.

Despite the Art Institute’s bad acts, another multibillion dollar forgiveness announcement (less than three weeks after the last one) raises an important and simple question each American should consider. Even if you believe all of this student loan forgiveness is legal, and if you are generally supportive of it, how much of your money would you be willing to spend on it? $20? $50? $1,000?

Seriously, how much?

Over the past few years, discussions of loan forgiveness have centered on questions concerning whether loan forgiveness is legal or prudent, but supporters of loan forgiveness have rarely been asked to specify how much loan forgiveness they think would be appropriate. In popular discourse, student loan forgiveness remains an abstract idea to be debated, not a line in our nation’s budget to be scrutinized. 

Meanwhile, a lot has already been spent on loan forgiveness. AEI’s Student Debt Forgiveness Tracker, which I run, tallies up all the student loans that have been forgiven during the Trump and Biden presidencies (or, more specifically, all student loan revenue from the US Treasury that has been forgone or forgiven during this time). With this month’s addition of $6.1 billion, the tracker’s total is a cool $397.5 billion dollars.

Now, some will argue that this money is not yours—and, in strict terms, that is true. However, money is fungible, and that means that any revenue due the treasury that is forgiven becomes one of three things: taxes, foregone government services or subsidies, or debt. In other words, foregone student loan revenue becomes taxes you paid, services you might have missed, or debt you will owe. No matter what, you have a share.

But how big is your share? Let’s do the math. The US has 333 million people, making up 131 million households. For just the $6.1 billion announced on May 1, the average share is over $18 per person, or more than $46 for the average US household. Maybe that’s less than what you thought your share should be, but that’s just the latest round.

The total amount of student loan forgiveness that has already been forgone or forgiven is $397.5 billion, which means that the average share for every man, woman, and child in the nation is $1,193.00. For every household, it’s over $3,000.00.

If you support student loan forgiveness, is that an amount you are comfortable with? And, if it is, how much more would you be comfortable with? If the SAVE plan holds up and other forgiveness efforts hold up in court, that total could easily double or triple.

President Biden promised his supporters he would cancel loans, and despite what many of his detractors on the left suggest, he has already cancelled a lot of debt. If you oppose loan forgiveness on principle, you will see this as a bad thing. However, if you support it in principle, you should really think about how much debt cancellation you are willing to bear. It’s not an abstract question.