Student Debt: America’s Great Unequalizer

By Semira Mohamed

Americans champion education for its capacity to improve the lives of those who seek it across demographic lines, but for millions of college students and graduates across the United States, student debt has impaired their ability to achieve the American dream.

45 million Americans hold $1.7 trillion in student loan debt, making student debt the second largest form of household debt in the United States. This debt can take decades to pay off and, in the meantime, take a toll on the quality of life of borrowers. A 2021 study found that the financial burden student debt imposes decreases life satisfaction. Student debt can delay or even prevent many borrowers from achieving major life goals, such as marriage and purchasing a home. For some, the burdensome cost may prevent them from completing their degree program altogether. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, 37% of borrowers who began four-year degree programs in 2013 had not yet received a degree six years later.

Additionally, student debt exists within the broader systems of racial and class inequality. Borrowers who experience the greatest difficulty with repayment are disproportionately students of color and first-generation college students because they incur more debt and, subsequently, take more time paying off their debt. This longer-term financial constraint prevents these graduates from reaping the full benefits of their degrees.

Student debt is rising rapidly in the United States, and without government intervention, the systemic burden such debt produces will worsen. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, in March 2020, the federal government issued a moratorium on student loan payments and later issued historic student loan relief through the CARES Act. The moratorium has since been extended six times and is set to expire on August 31. With the expiration date just days away, many borrowers worry they will be forced to choose between putting a roof over their heads or food on the table to make their payments.

Across party lines, Americans agree that rising student debt is a problem. The Biden Administration’s Department of Education must take action to combat the student debt crisis by extending the moratorium and canceling student debt. There is already precedent for student debt cancellation. Students who fell victim to for-profit, predatory institutions such as Corinthian Colleges and ITT Technical Institute have received full loan discharges. The administration should build on this precedent and make federal student debt cancellation of up to $50,000 a reality for everyone.

Student debt cancellation is a matter of racial and economic justice and can remove barriers to achieving the American Dream. By making higher education more affordable and accessible, the United States can take a significant step toward making education a true equalizer.