Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., released her student debt relief plan on Monday, April 22, 2019.
On January 14, 2020, she repeated many of her same plans. The only new idea I found in that press release was her assertion that the President can cancel student debt without the consent of Congress.
The primary components of Senator Warren’s student loan plan include the following:
- $50,000 of student debt forgiveness for federal and private student loans
- Borrowers with household income below $100,000 would receive $50,000 in tax-free forgiveness. If you make more than $100,000 as a household, your forgiveness credit would decline by $1 for each $3 of income above the $100,000 income level. Above $250,000 of household income, you’d receive no forgiveness. For example, a $160,000 income gets you $30,000 of forgiveness, $220,000 of income gets you $10,000 of forgiveness and $260,000 would get you $0.
- To go along with this short-term stimulus, Warren would pass The Universal Free College program. This would eliminate tuition and fees at every public two- and four-year college in America.
Warren’s campaign estimates the cost of this plan at $1.25 trillion over 10 years. She would fund the program with a wealth tax on all families with net worths above $50 million. Is her plan realistic, could it pass and what does it mean for the state of student loan policy?
Elizabeth Warren attempts to make student debt relief progressive instead of regressive
I want Student Loan Planner to focus on the analysis of various student debt proposals. You can sound off in the comments section on what you think of it politically. Warren’s plan aims for drastic relief for the borrowers with the smallest balances. This would obviously cost the least as well.
When politicians call to forgive all student loan debt, they perhaps unknowingly are supporting a regressive policy. This means most of the benefit would go disproportionately to the wealthiest borrowers. For example, we love making New York University dentists custom plans for their student loan debt. However, forgiving the $600,000 debt of one NYU dentist could cost the same as wiping away the $10,000 debt burdens of 60 borrowers who attended a shady barber school with poor job placement rates.
Very small student loan balances have massive impact on the poorest students. These loan burdens often come from not finishing a degree program.
The vast majority of proposals I’ve seen on student loan reform does not pick up this nuance. Clearly, Warren and her team are paying attention to the details.
Warren’s plan has little to help borrowers with huge balances
To Warren’s credit, she has proposed expanding Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF) and other forgiveness programs in the past. This is a broad student loan plan designed to help the broadest number of people at the lowest possible cost. I imagine she would do a lot if elected to help borrowers with six-figure balances. But she would not want to telegraph that during a primary battle where messaging and getting focus from the media is super important to win.
Unfortunately, one area where her plan is lacking is how we could stop the problem of graduate programs who’ve decided to raise their prices to sky-high levels in the face of zero underwriting standards for debt. Physicians would still be in great shape with PSLF under President Warren. However, veterinarians, dentists, chiropractors and other groups with little access to PSLF-eligible jobs seem to have gotten little attention from Warren — and frankly all the Democratic presidential candidates in 2020.
Physicians could continue to benefit from student loan loopholes
Most readers of student loan blogs know that the PSLF program has a wonderful loophole for physicians who work for 501(c)(3) and government employers (like hospital systems). Getting credit for the years worked in residency and fellowship training allows many physicians to get most of their loan burden forgiven tax-free.
It depends on the text of Warren’s plan, but I could see a scenario where a future gastroenterology fellow with $60,000 of income could receive the $50,000 of tax-free loan forgiveness. This would be worth approximately $100,000 in pretax salary, since I’d presume they could have a 50% marginal combined tax rate as an attending when that money would have to be paid back if refinanced privately.
Warren’s student loan plan would encounter fierce resistance from Republicans — and possibly need a constitutional amendment
I don’t think Warren’s plan has a shot at passing unless Democrats retake the Senate, keep the House and she takes the White House. All three things would need to happen in 2020 for Warren’s student loan plan to happen. Republicans are clearly opposed to it, based on the reaction of some conservative media outlets.
If you want to sound off on your opinion in the comments about the wealth tax, I’d love to hear it. The wealth tax has been popularized by Warren, and there’s a good reason why she’s proposed this instead of an income tax. Amazon famously pays almost nothing in income taxes, and its founder, Jeff Bezos, likely liquidates very few shares, resulting in little income tax payable to the government.
Warren Buffet, another one of the wealthiest individuals in the world, uses charitable bequests and the deferral of capital gains to avoid taxes on most of his income. Hence, Warren is going after the market value of their assets to fund progressive policies. While Congress has the power to levy an income tax thanks to the 16th Amendment, scholars disagree if a tax on wealth while someone is still living is constitutional or not. It would certainly face a battle, likely leading up to the Supreme Court.
Funding Warren’s student loan reform would be challenging with a wealth tax
I’m not sure how the wealth tax would work in practice. The wealthy are notorious for their skill in hiring highly intelligent tax and legal professionals. Many lousy, expensive financial products in existence today got their start from earlier tax regimes in the 1970s and before, when the highest marginal rates were well above 60%.
Warren calls her funding plan the “Ultra-Millionaire tax.” I don’t see that plan covering the cost of free college for everyone because of the limited population it would tax as well as the likely avoidance effort that would occur.
To truly create free college for all, some level of additional tax increases would probably be required on middle-income earners. However, a progressive tax increase could certainly pay for a large chunk of Warren’s proposal.
Could private loans actually be paid off with a federal program?
While Warren’s proposal calls for paying off private as well as federal loans with her one-time $50,000 forgiveness, I wonder if that’s actually legal. That could significantly impair prepayment models of banks and other lenders, and they might sue due to lost interest income. I’m not defending these companies. Rather, I wonder how practical it is to forgive debt that’s not on the federal balance sheet.
The Federal Family Education Loan Program (FFEL) debt has always been treated in a weird way with new federal student loan reform proposals. That’s because the debt is issued by banks but guaranteed by the federal government. That’s one reason consolidation is necessary to make FFEL Loans eligible for new repayment programs. I’m not sure the original agreements with financial institutions allowed for the most generous forgiveness provisions like PSLF.
Warren’s student loan plan shows potential for generous changes in student loan rules
Every time I turn around these days, there seems to be a new proposal for helping student loan borrowers with ever more generous terms. Sens. Tim Kaine, D-Va., and Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., made a big effort to expand PSLF this year. Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., even wants to allow income-driven repayment to come directly out of your paycheck. It might even exempt spousal income from the payment calculation.
Despite the media and posts I’ve seen on social media decrying how the government earns a profit on student loans, politicians have no long-term desire to make a large financial return for the taxpayer on direct federal lending. They have made this clear by not imposing limits on borrowing for schools and by passing ever more generous repayment and forgiveness programs. Note the percentage of your income going to loans has only ever gone down since 2007, not up.
If a Democrat wins in 2020, I would expect a significantly large amount of money to go to new federal student loan relief. Warren’s plan is among the most well-thought out I’ve seen so far, even if you disagree with her approach.
What do you think of Warren’s plan to forgive a large number of borrowers’ student loans? Do you think it’s unfair to borrowers who owe significantly more than that? Comment below!