Why student loan forgiveness sparks anger: A philosopher, attorney general, sociologist and religious thought expert weigh in

Personal finance

D’Aungilique Jackson, of Fresno, California, holds a “Cancel Student Debt” sign outside the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington, D.C., after the nation’s high court struck down President Joe Biden’s student debt relief program on Friday, June 30, 2023.
Kent Nishimura | Los Angeles Times | Getty Images

It took Arkansas Attorney General Tim Griffin around 30 years to pay off his $100,000 student loan balance. He told CNBC that he wonders why other borrowers should just get their debt wiped away and has battled President Joe Biden’s efforts to cancel the loans.

The topic of student loan forgiveness sparks heated feelings about fairness, personal responsibility and economic soundness. The Biden administration’s most recent student loan forgiveness proposal garnered a record number of public comments, with over 148,000 people sharing their opinion.

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When Marlon Fox, a chiropractor in North Charleston, South Carolina, got his $119,500 student debt forgiven last year, he didn’t tell many people his story. He lives in a mostly Republican area where there is deep skepticism toward forgiving the debt of those who’ve benefited from higher education.

“They say, ‘Hey, you got your school loans paid off? That’s unfair,'” Fox told CNBC last year.

Why is the subject of student loan forgiveness so fraught? CNBC asked a range of different experts for their thoughts.

’A common-sense fairness question’

“There is a common-sense fairness question when it comes to erasing student debt,” Griffin wrote in an email to CNBC. He served as Arkansas’ lieutenant governor before he was sworn in as attorney general in 2023.

“It’s not that the debt doesn’t get paid, it’s that the debt gets paid using existing resources, which comes from taxpayers,” Griffin said. This spring, he and attorneys general at six other states brought a lawsuit against the Biden administration’s new repayment plan, known as the Saving on a Valuable Education, or SAVE, plan, which leads to a faster path to debt forgiveness.

“How is it fair for someone like me, who paid back my student loans, or for someone who never went to college in the first place and therefore does not have student debt, to have our tax dollars cover the personal debts of other people?” he said.

‘A narrative of personal responsibility’

To understand our attitudes about debt today, we need to look back in time, said Kate Padgett Walsh, a professor of philosophy at Iowa State University who researches the ethics of borrowing.

“Long before the invention of money, human beings were indebted to one another in families and small communities,” she said. “Children are indebted to parents for care, family and friends likewise become indebted to one another when we help each other out. Repaying these debts is part of how we all live together and build communities. Debts are a basic feature of human life with one another.”

“A person who receives the benefits of family, friends, and community without contributing their fair share is failing to be a responsible member of the group,” she added.

But the reason so many people today feel that failing to repay debts is irresponsible is because they’ve been “inundated with that message” from entities who profit from it, Padgett Walsh said.

“Lenders and businesses — especially now, given how much of our consumption is propped up by debt —profit from people taking out debt and feeling obligated to pay it back,” she said. “So, they encourage us to take out as much debt as we can possibly bear, and then insist that it would be morally wrong not to repay it.”

“We buy into this message in part because it resonates with our basic sense of an obligation to repay debts to family, friends and community that existed before money was invented,” Padgett Walsh said.

“But that can blind us to some of the real harms caused by actual forms of financial debt,” she said. “Our priorities should be preventing and alleviating student debt, rather than insisting on a narrative of personal responsibility.”

‘Different relationships to the education system’

“One reason why loan forgiveness is such a partisan issue is that members of each party have different relationships to the educational system,” said Devin Singh, an associate professor of religion at Dartmouth College and author of the forthcoming book, “Sacred Debt.”

“Statistically, a higher percentage of Democratic voters graduated from a four-year college and attended graduate school. So student loan forgiveness may affect more Democrats than Republicans directly.”

“The fact that most Americans don’t have a college degree may also mean that many resist loan forgiveness because student debt is not their problem and so forgiveness does not appear to directly benefit them,” said Singh, whose work has included explorations of the intersection of religion with politics and with economics.

The different parties also have different understandings of the role of higher education, he added.

“Democrats may express views about education contributing to the public good and supporting an engaged citizenry. Some who oppose student loan forgiveness view education as a private commodity that benefits the person who purchases it.”

‘A generational gap’

“I think there’s also a lot of misconceptions about fairness,” said Charlie Eaton, an associate professor of sociology at the University of California, Merced.

“A lot of people have trouble putting themselves in the shoes of a student loan borrower if they haven’t been one,” he said. “There’s a generational gap. A lot of older Americans didn’t have to borrow to go to college.”

“A lot of people also don’t understand many student loan borrowers who haven’t been able to pay off their debts have been making payments,” Eaton said. “It’s not they’re not making payments on their debts, but that the interest on the debt is so great that even when they’re making payments, the size of the debt still goes up.”

Fox, the chiropractor who got his debt forgiven last year, had been paying off his student debt since 1988.

Over those years, he paid around $200,000. He originally borrowed close to $60,000.

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