Would Student Debt Forgiveness Drive Inflation?

During the last year or so, inflation has grabbed the attention of the American public. The price of just about everything is way up, with gas prices, food, and rent grabbing the nation’s attention. As I write this piece, the most recent inflation rate checks in at 8.3%, which is leading the Federal Reserve to increase interest rates and also likely increases the risk of a coming recession.

I have been talking for months about the squeeze that inflation puts on colleges, as tuition prices are rising much slower than the costs that colleges face. Although a recession probably would result in an increase in enrollment across higher education, that is not the reason why any of us want to see enrollment increase. Therefore, I am deeply concerned about inflation and its ramifications.

Much of the higher education policy discussion over the last two years has been dominated by the issue of student debt forgiveness as payment pauses continue. The latest news on this front is that the Biden administration is still pondering $10,000 in forgiveness (with a limit on income to qualify), and that high inflation rates are causing them to potentially rethink this issue.

I have plenty of thoughts and concerns about how student debt forgiveness would work, whether it should be limited to undergraduate debt only, whether it would lead to potential limits on federal student loans, and that we would be back in the exact same situation in just a few years without meaningful reforms. But I’m actually not too concerned about the effects of $10,000 in student debt forgiveness on inflation. Here’s why, with some caveats.

Let’s look at three groups of students that will be affected in different ways by $10,000 in forgiveness.

The first group is people with less than $10,000 in debt. As far as I know, nobody is getting handed a check for $10,000 and that benefits would be spread out. (I could see a world in which people who chose to pay off their loans since March 2020 get refunds, but I doubt that will happen.) Let’s say someone had $8,000 in debt remaining to pay off over five years, with monthly payments of $175. Those payments would be completely wiped out, and would increase the capacity to spend right now. But would people spend that money or save it?

Let’s keep in mind that borrowers have not had to make any payments for the last 27 months. Any borrowers who do not have to make payments have the same monthly take-home pay as they do now, but with the knowledge that they won’t have to resume payments at some point in the future. I think that could affect making some larger purchases like cars (a market with lots of inflation right now), but probably not a purchase like a home due to the larger sticker price.

Now consider borrowers with more than $10,000 in debt who are not using income-driven repayment. Consider someone with $20,000 in debt that they are paying over a standard ten-year plan, with payments of about $212 per month at 5% interest. If $10,000 gets forgiven, how does this work? One option is that students stay on the ten-year payment plan and drop their payments in half. Another option is to keep the same $212 payment, but pay off in about half the time. The first option could increase discretionary income now, while the second option does nothing now and increases it later. This pushes any inflation concerns years into the future.

Finally, let’s turn to borrowers with more than $10,000 in debt who are using income-driven repayment or pursuing Public Service Loan Forgiveness. For many of these borrowers, the effect will be less money forgiven years down the road. For example, instead of having $60,000 forgiven under PSLF, taking $10,000 off the balance now would result in the same monthly payments and maybe $40,000 forgiven in the future. This shouldn’t affect inflation at all.

My takeaway: the short-term effects on inflation are likely to be fairly modest. And if payments resume alongside forgiveness, there may even be a modest decrease in inflation compared to the current repayment pause. There could also be modest positive pressures on longer-term inflation, but that will hopefully be less of a concern if inflation is brought under control in the next few years.

A closing note: expect an administrative nightmare when trying to put an income limit on student debt forgiveness. The Department of Education cannot access IRS data on income, so this would require that people honestly provide their own income based on instructions provided. If the goal is to make sure that the most affluent individuals do not get debt forgiven, it is a better idea to use data from FAFSAs to make the determination (credit to the brilliant Sue Dynarski here). For example, debt forgiveness could be tied to an Expected Family Contribution threshold that excludes the wealthiest few percent of students’ families.