The Biden administration has taken steps to ease the student debt burden, including forgiving $26 billion in student loans. The White House is also considering canceling debts more broadly for millions of borrowers. While the majority of the public supports some level of student loan forgiveness,  many people argue it would be unfair, especially to people who have already paid off their student loans.
To dissect this debate, we talked to people who study ethics for a living to weigh the moral case for and against student loan forgiveness.
The moral case for student loan forgiveness
The burden of student loan debt falls unequally along race and income lines. Black households carry more student debt than households of other races, contributing to lower homeownership rates among Black people with college degrees.  And for people with lower incomes, student debt payments make up a larger share of their pay than people with higher incomes, which disproportionately affects the ability of first-generation college students and students of color to build wealth, and potentially start their own businesses, says Kate Padgett Walsh, an associate professor of philosophy at Iowa State University who studies the ethics of debt.
“It’s entrenching and adding to inequality,” Walsh says. She believes first-generation college students and students of color would benefit from Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s proposal to cancel $50,000 in student debt for each borrower.
From a societal perspective, America has an advanced economy that requires a highly educated workforce. It makes sense to make it more affordable to get an education, not less. Education has broad benefits for society, so there should be broad support from society when it comes to educating people.
“We have a need for a workforce that is educated, and if we care about a future in which we are to continue to develop and grow, then we need to treat this as a common good,” Walsh says.
The moral arguments against student loan forgiveness
A common complaint about student loan forgiveness is that it’s unfair to people who paid off their student loan debt on their own. This is a bad argument, says Brian Berkey, who has written about economic justice and is an assistant professor of legal studies and business ethics at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania.
“If we accepted that, we would have to accept that we would never improve systems to make them more just,” Berkey says. He compared it to reducing prison sentences for marijuana possession: Just because people were unjustly punished in the past doesn’t mean we should keep treating people unjustly.
Walsh points out that this argument is often made by people who went to college decades ago, when debt burdens were smaller.
“It’s much more precarious now, where employment and benefits and all these things that make up the good life are not as stable as they had been,” she says.
However, there may be a case that any policy that reduces burdens for people who currently have large student debts should also compensate people who paid back large debts in the past, Berkey says.
A more compelling moral argument made against debt forgiveness is that people who take on student loan debt tend to be better off than people who don’t have the chance to go to college in the first place.
“If we’re making choices about what our policy priorities should be, it’s not clear that relieving the burden of debt for those who have the opportunity to go to college should be prioritized over providing economic opportunities or subsidies or something for people who are among the poorest in the country,” Berkey says.
In other words, student loan debt isn’t the most urgent problem to address if we’re doling out scarce government money. Instead, student loan forgiveness should be part of a broader set of reforms that expands economic opportunity.
Student loan forgiveness also wouldn’t solve the underlying problem: the cost of higher education and more importantly, how it falls on students. It’s better than nothing, some might say.
“Sometimes all we can do is a little bit,” Walsh says. “But ‘better than nothing,’ if it leaves the core issue untouched, is not enough either.”
Some states are taking reforms into their own hands in the absence of federal action. In March, New Mexico passed a law making tuition free for most residents. Moves like this can help address the bigger issue of how to pay for education, Walsh says.
“We need to rethink as a society how to fund higher education and how we create an educated workforce,” she says.
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