One of the problems inherent in all public policy discussions is the degree to which various aspects of our communal lives are connected–and the even greater degree to which those connections are unseen and/or under-appreciated.
As an example, a recent study from the Brookings Institution detailed the multiple ways in which student loan debt affects Americans, and illustrates the way lack of understanding of those connections distorts discussion of proposals to forgive at least some portion of it.
There is one element of student debt that is widely understood, of course–its size. In the last quarter of 2020, the Federal Reserve calculated the national student debt at $1.7 trillion, spread across 45 million borrowers. That is a monumental amount, and a monumental burden on both the borrowers and the economy.
Research suggests that forgiveness of some or all of that burden would prompt a variety of economically consequential behaviors–everything from eating out more frequently to making large purchases that the level of debt currently doesn’t permit: houses, cars, appliances and furnishings. Respondents to one survey also cited returning to school, and saving more for emergencies.
In a study cited by Brookings,
Higher amounts of student debt forgiveness were associated with other investment behaviors like starting a business or savings for a down payment on a home, as well as a willingness to spend more on entertainment….
These results [of the study cited] show two things. First, they show how extensively student debt affects debt holders. The responses to this experiment indicate that student debt is strongly influencing decisions that can have large implications for household economic stability (e.g., emergency savings) and mobility (e.g., saving for a down payment on a home, starting a business). In addition, student debt may be altering the structure of families themselves. Roughly 7 percent of respondents reported that they would be more likely to get married (results not shown) or have children if their student debt were forgiven, indicating that this debt burden is affecting even fundamental decisions about debt holders’ life trajectories.
Second, these results show that the level of student debt forgiveness matters. In particular, setting a student debt forgiveness target too low may not lead to broad-based changes in households’ economic behaviors. However, setting a student debt forgiveness amount at a point where the average debt holder would have more than a quarter of their debt forgiven may yield large changes in savings behaviors, human capital investments (e.g., returning to school), and business starts, without leading to large changes in labor supply.
It is undisputed that even a modest amount of debt forgiveness would remove what is currently a large drag on the economy. There are, obviously, other considerations: many people who have dutifully paid off their loans object to what they see as unfairness of giving later-comers relief that was unavailable to them. Others argue that any forgiveness should prioritize low-income borrowers, and avoid “bailing out” higher income folks.
Going forward, my own preference would be to replace the current, complicated student loan environment with a program that pays for at least two years of college in return for a year or two of military or civic service (a la Americorp).
Whatever the policy approach, we need to recognize that debt of 1.7 trillion dollars constitutes an enormous drag on Amreica’s economic growth. It isn’t simply an impediment to business formation–it prevents many individuals from taking lower-paying but gratifying jobs in the nonprofit sector– and it is a significant fiscal and psychic burden to individuals. It has become unsupportable.