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The "radical" case for abolishing student debt

Managing student loan debt
Managing student loan debt 07:15

The GOP tax bill is providing a $1.5 trillion windfall, which will mostly be enjoyed by the rich and corporations. But what if there were another way to spend that money that could benefit more middle-income Americans while eliminating some of the country's inequalities? 

Look no further than getting rid of America's student debt, argue researchers at Bard College's Levy Economics Institute. They examined the potential impact of canceling the $1.4 trillion in student debt that 44 million Americans are carrying. Erasing it would be a "radical" solution to the student debt crisis, but it would pay off in bountiful dividends to the U.S. economy, noted one of the paper's authors, Marshall Steinbaum, in a blog post about the research

The American dream of securing a good job, a house and upward financial momentum has created a perfect storm of student debt. Obtaining that lucrative job now requires a college or graduate degree, thanks to "credentialization," or employers' requirements that workers for previously entry-level jobs now hold college degrees. That's pushing more Americans to enroll in college at at time when public funding for universities has been slashed, putting more of the cost on students and their families. 

"Both dynamics benefit higher education institutions, discriminatory and predatory credit market participants, and powerful employers, which thrive in a segmented market where a captive population must pass through their tollbooth to get to the middle class," Steinbaum noted. 

Student debt, he added, was once carried only by highly paid professionals who had attended graduate school, such as attorneys or doctors. But the more competitive labor market means a college degree may be the only route to the American dream today. 

Whether it's worth taking on debt to attend college remains a debate among many families, especially since a piece of parchment doesn't necessarily guarantee high wages. Yet research indicates earning a bachelor's degree pays off -- even if it takes years to break even on the investment. 

But what if Americans didn't have to wait to be made whole on their investment? Erasing the debt would add as much as $1.1 trillion in economic growth over a decade, while more than 1 million new jobs would be created each year, the researchers forecast. Unemployment rates would be reduced by as much as 0.36 percentage points. 

Because 44 million Americans wouldn't need to repay their loans each month, those households would have greater discretionary spending. That would unlock their ability to buy homes or start a family, given that some economists theorize that millennials are more likely to hold off on both because of their student loan burdens.

Higher spending would stimulate demand for jobs and would lower unemployment, also contributing to economic growth. 

Canceling the country's student debt "amounts to around the same size in net dollar costs to the government as the recent tax giveaway to the rich, although with a very different beneficiary population," Steinbaum noted. "Hence, student debt cancellation would have a much better macroeconomic impact."

The researchers outline several ways the government could effectively erase the debt, including the U.S. Education Department canceling the loans it currently holds and the federal government purchasing private loans and then canceling them. Inflation would be minimal, according to their modeling of the economic impact. 

Abolishing student debt isn't a new idea. Green Party candidate Jill Stein pushed the idea in her 2016 presidential platform, for one. But contrarians point out such a move could inflame political division, with some viewing it as a giveaway to higher-income professionals who don't need a handout as much as less educated Americans. 

On the other hand, that criticism overlooks the fact that minorities and the poor are often hurt the most by student debt. The Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis found that blacks and Hispanics who earned college degrees have ended up worse off than they were before the recession. That's partially because they often come from poorer families and take on more debt, but the job market also comes into play. 

"The crucial difference is simply that white graduates are likely to find a job and start paying down their debt, more-or-less as the system is designed, but black graduates are not," Steinbaum wrote.

He noted that the concept of canceling student debt is "radical." And the idea may simply fail to get traction following the $1.5 trillion tax bill. Still, it's an idea that some lawmakers -- and college grads -- want to be taken seriously. 

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