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Is student debt forgiveness 'fair'? 3 ethics and philosophy professors weigh in

"What's not fair is to ignore the facts of how much distress educational debt is really causing."

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Many Americans are calling for President-elect Joe Biden to forgive student debt via executive order during his first 100 days. Biden supports forgiving $10,000 in federal student debt. Some proponents argue an even bigger amount should be canceled.

"We have come to the conclusion that President Biden can undo this debt, can forgive $50,000 of debt the first day he becomes president," Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said recently. "You don't need Congress; all you need is the flick of a pen."

House Democrats have also proposed a bill that would "broadly" forgive up to $50,00 of federal debt for student borrowers.

Americans owe approximately $1.6 trillion in student debt, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. Almost half (43%) of college attendees say they incurred some kind of educational debt, and the average undergraduate student borrows $37,584, according to Educationdata.org.

Broad-stroke forgiveness of student loans is divisive, though. Opponents argue that it deepens the country's debt — and that it's simply not fair. As The Week columnist Damon Linker recently said in a tweet that went viral, the reaction to debt cancellation is "gonna be bad" among those who have already paid off their student loans or who didn't attend college.

To professors who study the ethics of student loan forgiveness, the idea of what is "fair" needs to be rethought. While some believe it actually is just and reasonable to broadly cancel student debt via executive order, others think a conservative approach would result in a more equitable and less polarizing resolution.

'Equal opportunity is what's fair'

College is arguably more critical to a middle-class life than it used to be, and yet both private and public schools are far more expensive than they were. If you look at the debt-to-income details of recent grads compared to those decades ago, forgiving student loans is actually more equitable than expecting students to pay them, says Kate Padgett-Walsh, an associate professor of philosophy at Iowa State University. As she puts it, "Equal opportunity is what's fair."

For perspective, the average student earning a bachelor's degree graduated with $9,300 in student loan debt in 1993, according to SavingForCollege.com. Their average starting salary was $28,088, or $50,583 in current dollars, according to the National Association of Colleges and Employers.

For 2019 grads, the average debt for a bachelor's degree was $29,900. And their average starting salary was $53,889.

"Student debt is much more burdensome to young adults than it was in previous generations, and it is preventing them from taking formative adult actions, like buying or even renting their own homes, starting relationships or families, and buying cars," Padgett-Walsh says.

Student debt is much more burdensome to young adults than it was in previous generations, and it is preventing them from taking formative adult actions.
Kate Padgett-Walsh
associate professor of philosophy at Iowa State University

"What's not fair is to ignore the facts of how much distress educational debt is really causing today," she adds.

Nor should the idea of student loans as an ironclad agreement prevent forgiveness, she says. There is already government financial support that breaks similar agreements borrowers make with lenders. "Bankruptcy law recognizes the need to take the present into account and allow for some debt cancellation, when appropriate," she says. "But student debt is, of course, largely excluded from bankruptcy discharge."

'I wouldn't favor debt relief across the board all the time'

The resentment surrounding the idea of student loan forgiveness is understandable, according to David DeCosse, the director of the religious and Catholic ethics and campus ethics programs at Santa Clara University. "I wouldn't favor debt relief across the board all the time," he says, as he believes those who have the capacity, financially, to pay back student loans should do so.

But he does believe there are times "where it makes good sense," as most Americans with student debt are not in this situation. That's in part because many students take on debt without fully understanding the task of paying it off. An 18-year-old who sees the income benefits of having a bachelor's degree might take out a loan thinking it will lead to a higher salary and not understand how long they will be paying for that degree.

"I think there's a mistaken sense in our culture that says any contract you get into, just because you agree to it, is fair and just," he says. "I think that way of thinking way too often underestimates the kind of pressures and vulnerability that way-weaker parties in these contracts are actually in. [Students] agree to terms under a certain range of pressures that are very real to them, like 'I want to get ahead, I want a job, I want to help my family.'"

There's a mistaken sense in our culture that says any contract you get into, just because you agree to it, is fair and just.
David DeCosse
director of the religious and catholic ethics and campus ethics programs at Santa Clara University

When it comes to student loans, there is also a perception that failure to pay is a personal failure, he says, which needs to change.

"I am completely in favor of personal responsibility, but we've taken that as an interpersonal norm and made that a broad societal normal by which we measure almost every social problem in this country, and it doesn't work," he says.

This view tends to be disproportionally applied to student debt, as opposed to other types of financial trouble, too, he points out. "We never hear these complaints about incredibly rich people who get all kinds of tax breaks," Decosse says. "We never hear the same argument about their failure to exercise personal responsibility. It's always the poor, weak, persons of color, who get dumped on."

'I am disagreeing with the procedure, not the idea itself'

Even if you agree with debt cancellation, the method by which it is done matters and can make the action more or less fair, says Ilsup Ahn, a philosophy professor at North Park University. Canceling debt via executive order, for example, could create more divides.

While the "intention" of alleviating the burden of student debt is good, "quick and fast solutions can be dangerous," he says. All the same, he adds, "I am disagreeing with the procedure, not the idea itself."

Rethinking interest rates is a more long-term solution that would be less polarizing, he says. "Unless we talk about the structure, all this discourse will be reduced to an opinion."

He understands why those who have already paid off their student loans might be upset to see their friends' loans simply disappear, and he empathizes with their resentment. Still, he understands why younger generations are frustrated with Boomers, who don't seem to recognize or care that millennials and Gen Z got dealt a far more difficult hand.

"Students and future generations are struggling with student debt and my generation is not doing anything about it. That's wrong," Ahn says. "But we have to deal with this from a fairness perspective."

Without a "social agreement" in which Americans believe student debt should be canceled, he says, the president simply forgiving debt could be "dangerous" and divisive.

Reaching this social agreement might require Americans to rethink their perceptions of student loans, Ahn says.

"We have a poverty of social philosophy on student debt," he says. "Student debt is society's investment in a better society. That is supposed to be a gift to future generations so [they] can make our society better. We are turning it into a money-making source."

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