The long-awaited announcement came Wednesday. President Biden said his administration would cancel up to $20,000 in federal student loan debt for some Pell Grant recipients – up to $10,000 for other student debtors – and extend the COVID-19 repayment pause to December. It amounts to the most significant forgiveness of federal student loans for individuals in American history.

The Biden administration has already canceled more than $30 billion in debt for hundreds of thousands of people, primarily those defrauded by for-profit schools, people with permanent disabilities and some public-service workers. The White House estimates it will wipe out the debt of 20 million borrowers.

Impressive as these figures are, tens of millions of people remain under crushing debt. Federal student loan debt totals $1.6 trillion, borne by 43 million Americans. Top Democrats such as Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren pressed the president to go bigger by canceling at least $50,000 in debt for borrowers.

As a professor and a recent student, I know first-hand the high cost of obtaining higher education today. Student loan repayments comprise a large chunk of borrowers’ monthly income. Indeed, it’s the second-largest slice of household debt after mortgages – bigger even than credit card debt. Some parents who guaranteed loans for their children find themselves struggling to pay off their debt.

This means important goals such as starting a business or a family or buying a home get delayed or put off all together. That’s not good for America’s future.

At Northeastern University, the private institution in Boston where I teach, tuition is $59,100 per year, not including the cost of living expenses like food and transportation. According to a report by Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce, two out of three jobs require post-secondary education and training, compared to the 1970s when three out of four jobs required a high school education.


We’ve long passed the days when a student could wait tables or work at an outdoor camp during the summer to offset the cost of a college degree, the average price of which has increased by 169 percent since 1980, according to the Georgetown report. A college education is not a luxury in 2022, it’s something needed to compete in a global economy and earn a middle-class income.

Critics of student debt cancellation have raised concerns about the potential damage caused by the acceleration of already record-high inflation rates. Others, often folks who didn’t go to college or settled with less expensive schools, have argued that borrowers are obligated to pay back money they owe.

Debt forgiveness is hardly a new concept. Business owners have often had debt canceled or significantly reduced by filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection giving themselves a fresh start. Former President Donald Trump, a self-proclaimed billionaire who’s operated a string of unsuccessful enterprises, including casinos, did this six times. The average debt forgiven for businesses that received Payback Protection Program loans during the pandemic was $95,700.

As Sen. Warren said last May in an MSNBC interview on student debt: “What is it that we think we do to build a future?”

While more student debt relief is needed, so are long-term solutions to make college more affordable. The decline in state and federal support for public colleges has meant the burden to pay for higher education has shifted to students. A more permanent version of Gov. Mills’ plan to provide free tuition community college tuition for qualified Maine students is one way to reduce the cost of obtaining a degree.

Lawmakers could also make discharging student loans through bankruptcy as easy as it is for credit card and mortgage debt. Colleges and universities, which have for too long shirked responsibility for the problem, should offer more grants in financial aid packages. And the federal government needs to fix its helpful repayment programs, which have been plagued by mismanagement.

Student debt has already inflicted generational damage. Biden’s new plan could be the start down the road to recovery.

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