Dear President Biden,
We are scholars who study student debt, higher education, and racial inequality. We write to urge you to use your executive authority to cancel student debt as soon as possible. Doing so will address racial debt disparities, provide urgent economic relief for all Americans, further stimulate the economic recovery, and right a series of wrongs.
Among students who began college in 2003-2004, Black borrowers still owed 113 percent of their original loan after 12 years due to compounding interest — compared to 83 percent for Latinx students and 65 percent for white students. Black women are the most impacted group of borrowers. The prospects for ever repaying these debts have worsened during the severe economic downturn triggered by the Covid-19 pandemic. And without debt cancellation, borrowers will struggle to recover from the Covid19 pandemic.
Some have focused their efforts on Income Driven Repayment (IDR) plans, instead of debt cancellation. Unfortunately, many low-income borrowers currently are not benefiting from IDR plans. As of 2020, around 50 percent of borrowers with low incomes and large loan balances still had not enrolled in IDR. And fewer than 20 borrowers have had their debts cancelled under IDR programs. Debt cancellation is far simpler than mobilizing millions of borrowers to enroll individually in IDR. And, borrowers who have already missed payments can be barred from IDR. Borrowers themselves have documented the difficulties of enrolling in IDR; it is a common topic found in the complaints database of the Consumer Finance Protection Bureau. In short, IDR programs are no substitute for debt cancellation.
Acting swiftly and decisively to cancel student debt will result in a progressive policy. We also believe that canceling debt through an executive order is the only way to avoid unnecessary compromises that would lead to regressive policy outcomes. Here’s why.
Student debt cancellation would be highly progressive. The reason for this progressivity is simple: Poor students borrow and rich students do not. Among students from households with less than $30,000 in income who began college in 2012, 61 percent left school with Title IV federal student loan debt. By contrast, only 30 percent of students from households with over $200,000 income left school with such debts. Reflecting racial differences in income and wealth, 74 percent of Black students leave school with such debts compared to 55 percent of white students. The 70 percent of wealthy students who leave college with no debt would receive zero dollars from debt cancellation.
Debt cancellation also would benefit disproportionately those students who have lower-income jobs after college. Among the students who began college in 2012, 55 percent of those with incomes below $30,000 in 2017 had debt compared to just 28 percent of those with incomes above $125,000 that year. Similarly, one survey found that 49 percent of retail workers have student debt. We lack comparable data for investment bankers or hedge-fund managers. But we do know that high earners in those professions graduate disproportionately from top private universities where an average of just 18 percent of all undergraduates borrow at all. This disparity in student debt is why debt cancellation is supported by SEIU, the nation’s largest service workers union, but not the American Bankers Association.
Using an executive order would ensure that student-debt cancellation is accomplished in a progressive way. An executive order would avoid asking student borrowers to jump through unnecessary hoops, to complete yet another round of paperwork, and to endure the humiliation of being treated as if they are trying to acquire something they don’t deserve. With a design focused on fairness and dignity, the only thing debtors would have to do is receive notification that justice has been done, that they need not do anything unless they want to opt out. In this way, everyone will be doing better and feeling better about it.
Separate tax-reform legislation from Congress could “claw-back” income gains from the cancellation of any debt made to wealthier borrowers. A more progressive tax code is a more effective and popular way to assure a progressive income distribution than through financial aid policy.
A strong majority of Americans support student-debt cancellation. It is not always the case that the majority speaks out in favor of righting a past injustice. When they do and the evidence is also on the side of right, justice should no longer be deferred.
[Below are the 54 initial signers. The full list of signers (716 as of January 28th) can be found here.]
Fenaba Addo, Associate Professor of Consumer Science, University of Wisconsin
Elizabeth Armstrong, Professor of Sociology, University of Michigan
Nina Bandelj, Professor of Sociology, University of California, Irvine
Amy Binder, Professor of Sociology, University of California, San Diego
Raphaël Charron-Chénier, Professor of Justice and Social Inquiry, Arizona State University
Christina Ciocca Eller, Assistant Professor of Sociology, Harvard University
Matthew Desmond, Professor of Sociology, Princeton University
Rachel Dwyer, Professor of Sociology, Ohio State University
Charlie Eaton, Assistant Professor of Sociology, University of California, Merced
Claire Edington, Assistant Professor of History, University of California, San Diego
Neil Fligstein, Professor of Sociology, University of California, Berkeley
Joan Fujimura, Professor of Sociology, University of Wisconsin
Benjamin Gebre-Medhin, Assistant Professor of Sociology, Mount Holyoke College
Kim Geron, Professor of Political Science, California State University East Bay
Jonathan Glater, Professor of Law, University of California, Los Angeles
Sara Goldrick-Rab, Professor of Sociology and Medicine, Temple University
Adam Goldstein, Assistant Professor of Sociology and Public Affairs, Princeton University
Laura Hamilton, Professor of Sociology, University of California, Merced
Darrick Hamilton, Professor of Economics, The New School
Daniel Hirschman, Assistant Professor of Sociology, Brown University
Jason Houle, Associate Professor of Quantitative Social Science and Sociology, Dartmouth College
Lilly Irani, Associate Professor of Communication and Science Studies, University of California, San Diego
Dalie Jimenez, Professor of Law, University of California, Irvine
Shamus Kahn, Professor of Sociology, Princeton University
Greta Krippner, Associate Professor of Sociology, University of Michigan
Ken-Hou Lin, Associate Professor of Sociology, University of Texas, Austin
Christopher Loss, Associate Professor of Education, Vanderbilt University
Isaac Martin, Professor of Sociology, University of California, San Diego
Myra Marx-Ferree, Professor of Sociology, University of Wisconsin
Tressie McMillan Cottom, Associate Professor of Information and Library Science, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill
Toby Merrill, Senior Clinical Instructor & Lecturer on Law, Harvard University
Megan Neely, Assistant Professor of Organisation, Copenhagen Business School
Pamela Oliver, Professor of Sociology, University of Wisconsin
Michael Olneck, Professor Emeritus of Educational Policy Studies and Sociology, University of Wisconsin
Juan Pablo Pardo-Guerra, Associate Professor of Sociology, University of California, San Diego
Elizabeth Popp Berman, Associate Professor of Organization Studies, University of Michigan
Sarah Quinn, Associate Professor of Sociology, University of Washington
Francisco Ramirez, Professor of Education, Stanford University
Victor Ray, Assistant Professor of Sociology and Criminology, University of Iowa
Daisy Reyes, Associate Professor of Sociology, University of California, Merced
Joel Rogers, Professor of Law, Political Science, Public Affairs, and Sociology, University of Wisconsin
Tobias Schulze-Cleven, Associate Professor of Management and Labor Relations, Rutgers University
Louise Seamster, Assistant Professor of Sociology, University of Iowa
Thomas Shapiro, Professor of Social Policy, Brandeis University
Sheila Slaughter, Professor of Higher Education, University of Georgia
Mitchell Stevens, Professor of Education, Stanford University
Lillian Taiz, Professor of History, California State University Los Angeles
Chloe Thurston, Assistant Professor of Political Science, Northwestern University
Lisa Wade, Associate Professor of Sociology, Tulane University
Margaret Weir, Professor of Political Science and International and Public Affairs, Brown University
Frederick Wherry, Professor of Sociology, Princeton University
Emily Zackin, Associate Professor of Political Science, Johns Hopkins University
Naomi Zewde, Assistant Professor of Health Policy, City University of New York
Kathrin Zippel, Professor of Sociology and Anthropology, Northeastern University