Mr. A. Wayne Johnson, the Department of Education’s “chief strategy and transformation officer,” announced his resignation this week and called for massive forgiveness of student-loan debt.
Johnson, who was appointed to his DOE position by Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, proposes to forgive all federal student loan debt up to $50,000 per student. And he’s also calling for a $50,000 tax credit for people who have already repaid their loans.
Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, both presidential candidates, are also calling for wholesale forgiveness of student loans. Johnson’s plan is more generous than Senator Warren’s proposal, which puts income caps on student-loan forgiveness. On the other hand, Senator Sanders’ plan is even more generous than Johnson’s. Bernie calls for forgiving all student-loan debt–about $1.6 trillion dollars with no income cap. Johnson’s proposal would cost taxpayers less–an estimated $925 million.
Is massive student-loan forgiveness a good idea? I think it is. Johnson is right; the student loan program is “fundamentally broken.” Even Secretary DeVos compared the program to a looming thunderstorm and admitted last year that only 24 percent of student debtors are paying back both principal and interest on their loans.
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Indeed, virtually no one in the government’s income-based repayment plans (IBRPs) will pay back their student loans because their monthly payments are not large enough to pay down accumulating interest on borrowers’ underlying debt. About 7.3 million people are in IBRPs, and millions more have defaulted on their loans or have them in deferment.
We know that massive student-loan indebtedness is hindering young people from getting married, having children, and buying homes. Researchers at Bard College’s Levy Economics Institute concluded that student-loan forgiveness would actually stimulate the national economy by freeing up money for student debtors to purchase houses and consumer goods.
Personally, I’m OK with all three student-loan forgiveness proposals: Johnson’s, Warren’s and Sanders’. Let’s face facts; most of these loans will never be paid back.
But I think a better option would be for Congress to remove impediments to discharging student loans in bankruptcy, which it can easily do. Congress just needs to pass a law that would remove the words “undue hardship” from the 11 U.S.C. § 523(a) of the Bankruptcy Code.
Amending the Bankruptcy Code would allow federal bankruptcy judges to decide, on a case-by-case basis, which student-loan borrowers are truly insolvent and deserving of relief. These judges have the experience and the authority to weed out fraudulent claims and restrict debt relief to worthy candidates.
Massive student-loan debt relief without regard to individual circumstances would allow all 45 million student-loan borrowers to shake off their student debt–even those who obtained good value from their educational experiences and have the financial means to pay off their loans. I don’t think that is good public policy.
Nevertheless, if the choice is between massive student-loan relief and the present system, I’m in favor of the plans put forward by Mr. Johnson, Senator Warren, and Senator Sanders. As I said, most of these loans will never be paid back and forcing millions of distressed student-loan debtors into 20- or 25-year income-based repayment plans just subject them to a lifetime of stress, anxiety, and needless suffering.