By Noah Smith, RightsViews staff writer and a graduate student in the human rights MA program.

Americans owe over $1.7 trillion in student loan debt and the Federal Reserve projects that 31% of all U.S. adults have student loans. House and Senate Democrats have frequently implored President Biden to forgive up to $50,000 of federal debt through an Executive Order, an action Senate majority leader Chuck Schumer has articulated Biden should take during his first 100 days in office.

During a recent CNN town hall, an audience member asked President Biden what actions his administration will take to forgive up to $50,000. He quickly responded by stating “I will not make that happen.” President Biden has given several reasons for why he does not support large student debt forgiveness, namely, he believes such action would disproportionately benefit students who go to “elite” private colleges. “It depends on whether or not you go to a private university or public university,” he said “it depends on the idea that I say to a community,  ‘I’m going to forgive the debt, the billions of dollars of debt, for people who have gone to Harvard and Yale and Penn.’’’ Instead of enacting progressive policies to forgive a substantial portion of student debt, President Biden stated that funds could be better allocated “to provide for early education for young children that come from disadvantaged circumstances.”

President Biden’s reasoning is flawed and deeply problematic by asserting that student debt forgiveness would disproportionately benefit those who attend elite institutions. Undergraduates from Ivy Leagues are among students with the lowest amounts of student debt owed due to well-funded student aid programs. However, graduate students rarely benefit from these aid programs and are required to take out loans. According to the Department of Education’s College Scorecard, students in 2017 or 2018 from elite colleges and graduate programs owed 12 percent of all student debt in those years, yet account for only 4 percent of all borrowers. The largest share of borrowers attended public universities and hold 49 percent of the total student debt. Another 25 percent of borrowers attended for-profit schools. “Misperceptions that higher education graduates are all from elite institutions are pervasive, and do not help educate the public about the value of postsecondary education,” says Fenaba Addo, an associate professor of public policy at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.  

The Biden Administration seems content to portray the student debt crisis as an elitist issue while ignoring the burgeoning human rights crises it is creating. In an op-ed penned for CNN, Persis Yu, director of the Student Loan Borrower Assistance Project at the National Consumer Law Center, articulates that “quite simply put, student loan debt is not a problem of the elite. The vast majority of student loan borrowers are low- and middle-class Americans who had to go into debt to access postsecondary education, and who are paying dearly for it.” Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley, in a Dec 17 statement asserted that “the student debt crisis is a racial and economic justice issue and we must finally begin to address it as such. Broad-based student debt cancellation is precisely the kind of bold, high-impact policy that the broad and diverse coalition that elected Joe Biden and Kamala Harris expect them to deliver.” Forgiving student debt would allow the U.S. to level the socioeconomic playing field, and offer the opportunity for social mobility for those burdened with debt. According to Congresswoman Ilhan Omar “over 90 percent of student debt is held by the federal government, which President Biden can cancel with the stroke of a pen.”

There’s a growing awareness that the student debt crisis is a human rights and civil rights issue because student debt has a significant effect on an indebted borrower’s financial decisions. Reports from the American Association of University Women state that women hold nearly two-thirds of the nation’s nearly $1.7 trillion in student loan debt, amounting to $929 billion. Roughly 46% of Black student borrowers put off buying a home, 43% report having to work more than they would prefer, and owe an average of $25,000 more in student loan debt than White college graduates. Furthermore, Latinx borrowers were most likely to delay getting married and 37% delayed having children due to debt. According to UCI professor of law Dalié Jiménez and UCLA professor of law Jonathan Glater “Unprincipled for-profit institutions disproportionately target these communities of color, who have been historically excluded from institutions of higher education, and scoop up an outsized share of federal student aid dollars.” Glater and Jimenez assert that “congressional action and inaction that permitted student loans to become the dominant federal intervention in higher education finance has proven an ill-advised choice and one that has had a disparate, negative impact on students who belong to racial and ethnic groups that have historically suffered racial oppression.”

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) enshrines the rights and freedoms of all human beings and is a common standard of achievement for all people and all nations. Article 25 of the UDHR recognizes that everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for their health and well-being and Article 26 asserts that higher education shall be equally accessible to all on the basis of merit. While the UDHR is not legally binding, it is a common standard for all people and nations to follow to assure the rights and freedoms of all human beings. The Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights  (ICESCR) also recognizes the importance of higher education and “agree that education shall be directed to the full development of the human personality and the sense of its dignity, and shall strengthen the respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms.” Article 13 of the ICESCR asserts that “higher education shall be made equally accessible to all, on the basis of capacity, by every appropriate means, and in particular by the progressive introduction of free education.” The U.S. has not ratified the ICESCR, however as a nation that claims to support human rights they should ratify this convention and provide the highest attainable standard of living and education for all. The United Nations recognizes that “education is both a human right in itself and an indispensable means of realizing other human rights.” The Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights has articulated that “education is the primary vehicle by which economically and socially marginalized adults and children can lift themselves out of poverty and obtain the means to participate fully in their communities.

President Biden must refrain from dissecting who is worthy and unworthy of student debt forgiveness nor use Ivy League students as a matter of contention to excuse his lack of willingness to advance progressive policies. The Biden administration must acknowledge the human rights implications of the student debt crisis, which if ignored, will most certainly perpetuate systemic gender, racial, social, as well as economic inequality. American students and graduates are drowning under the weight of $1.7 trillion worth of debt, a burden that has only been exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic which has left the global economy shaken, destabilized the job market, and left students with a precarious future. Without aggressive policies, the student debt crisis may very well become an unmitigated human rights disaster.




“Fix the Student Debt Problem” by Overpass Light Brigade is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

“College Student Debt at OWS 10/9/2011” by hardtopeel is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

“Student debt ruined me!” by quinn.anya is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

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