Editor's Note: For the latest developments regarding federal student loan debt repayment, check out our student debt guide.
Student loans are a significant issue in the United States, where consumers have more than $1.7 trillion in total student loan debt. In 2021, the average federal student loan debt per borrower was just over $37,000. And 20 years after students enter college, half of borrowers still owe $20,000 in student loans.
Broken down by degree levels, the debt increases. Graduate students who receive a degree leave school with an average of nearly $70,000 in debt. Law students are saddled with an average of $180,000; and medical students owe $250,000 on average for total student loan debt.
With so many borrowers and so much debt, it begs the question, “Should all student loan debt be forgiven?”
Who’s in Favor?
By a 2-to-1 margin, voters do support at least some student loans being forgiven, according to a poll from Politico and Morning Consult. And 53% of voters from the same poll support Biden’s extension of student loan payments through August.
Proponents of canceling student loan debt point out that the government is partially responsible for this debt crisis. Because many states slashed higher education funding after the 2008 recession, tuition at both public and private colleges has gone up steeply, and many students have been forced to take out even more in loans.
Unfortunately, the increase in student loan balances hasn’t gone hand in hand with a bump in post-college salary. The result is a national situation where borrowers owe increasingly more in student loans but don’t have the paycheck to aggressively tackle their balances.
Although the government has created income-driven repayment options that seek to keep monthly student loan payments affordable, signing up isn’t without its downsides.
Since these income-driven plans often lengthen loan terms, borrowers may pay significantly more interest on their loans over time. Also, any forgiven balance at the end of their loan term is typically treated as taxable income.
Why Forgiving Student Loan Debt a Isn’t a Slam-Dunk
There are several reasons why forgiving student loan debt may not be a straightforward positive. The first is that, according to U.S. tax laws, debt that’s forgiven is a taxable event. Under income-driven student loan repayment plans, for instance, if you make consistent, on-time payments for the life of the loan (20 or 25 years, depending on when you borrowed), any balance remaining at the end of your loan term is forgiven — but whatever’s forgiven is considered taxable income.
The second issue pundits raise with this plan is that it’s being sold as a stimulus: If the government forgives people’s student loan debt, they’ll put money back into the economy, the thinking goes. But forgiving debt isn’t the same as handing people a check.
And finally, the federal government so far isn’t planning to forgive student loans that borrowers hold with private lenders, which average over $54,000 per borrower.
Alternative Options to Canceling Student Loan Debt
Instead of targeting only student loan borrowers who qualify for relief, the government could provide a stimulus check to all Americans, and Americans could decide for themselves how to use it.
If someone has $10,000 in outstanding student loans, for example, they might prefer to use a check to put a down payment on a house or pay off high-interest credit card debt.
Then there’s the higher education system itself. Canceling or forgiving student loan debt may provide only temporary relief as long as tuition levels continue to rise. As it stands, future generations will be saddled with just as much, if not more, student debt than Americans currently have today.
Tackling Your Student Loan Debt
There’s no telling when or if some form of more long-term relief might appear for student loan borrowers. If you’re struggling under the weight of your student debt, there are strategies that might help:
• Alternative payment plans: Federal student loans come with a variety of repayment options, one of which might suit your situation.
• Direction of overpayments: If you make extra payments on your student loans, you may instruct your servicer to apply them to your principal, rather than the next month’s payment plus interest. This will help pay off your loans faster.
• “Found” money: If you receive a work bonus or tax refund, applying it to your student loans can help reduce your balance faster.
• Refinancing: Refinancing student loans (private and/or federal) into one new loan with a private lender could lower your monthly payment and interest rate, and make it easier to manage payments. Just know that refinancing federal student loans with a private lender means losing access to federal repayment and forgiveness programs.
Recommended: Can Refinanced Student Loans Still Be Forgiven?
There is no quick fix for student loan debt, which will take further discussion from stakeholders on all sides.
If you are struggling with your own student loan debt, there are options to consider. You can apply for an income-driven repayment plan, apply for student loan deferment or forbearance on your federal student loans, or refinance your loans with a private lender. Keep in mind, though, that refinancing disqualifies you from federal benefits you may otherwise be eligible for.
If you do decide to refinance, consider SoFi. SoFi has a quick online application process, competitive rates, and no origination fees or prepayment penalties.
Student Loan Refinancing
If you are a federal student loan borrower you should take time now to prepare for your payments to restart, including the opportunity to refinance your student loan debt at a lower APR or to extend your term to achieve a lower monthly payment. (You may pay more interest over the life of the loan if you refinance with an extended term.) Please note that once you refinance federal student loans, you will no longer be eligible for current or future flexible payment options available to federal loan borrowers, including but not limited to income-based repayment plans, such as the SAVE Plan, or extended repayment plans.
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