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America has a $1.7 trillion student loan debt problem. Here’s what 6 borrowers think will solve the crisis as Biden’s forgiveness plan stalls

December 1, 2022, 4:00 PM UTC
student on campus
"Why is it that only the elite can go to school without signing their lives away?"
Iryna Khabliuk / EyeEm

When President Joe Biden announced his plan to forgive up to $10,000 to $20,000 in federal student loan debt for most borrowers, it was the first time in many of their adult lives that those bearing the burden felt hopeful they would one day get out from under their debt.

It wasn’t a cure-all for America’s student loan crisis, but it was a start, they said—especially for millennials and the oldest members of Gen Z, who have faced higher college costs than previous generations. The United States’ student loan balance has exploded over the past three decades. Some 48 million borrowers owe more than $1.7 trillion in debt, more than what Americans owe in auto loans and credit card debt. The cost of college, and the debt borrowers are left with, is higher in the United States than in almost all other wealthy countries.

That debt weighs heavily on many borrowers, causing them to delay milestones and worsening their mental health. Though a college graduate is still likely to out-earn those who never attended school, many borrowers say they feel misled and even tricked about the importance of taking out loans to attend an institution of higher education.

“I was always just told sign here and sign here,” says Amanda Fortunato, a 31-year old who graduated with over $100,000 in student loan debt. “My 18-year-old mind at the time, or even at 21, couldn’t comprehend what I was signing off on.”

Voters in favor of forgiveness said it felt like the federal government was finally starting to take the problem seriously. But Biden’s relief plan has been blocked by two different courts, and its future is uncertain. That’s left some borrowers confused, angry, and, in many cases, dispirited.

Critics and supporters of loan forgiveness alike say it’s also highlighted that more needs to be done to combat the rising cost of higher education and ever-increasing debt the nation’s young people are asked to shoulder in hopes of a better future.

“This is not a solution, Biden’s relief plan,” says André Perry, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. “Ultimately, tuitions keep increasing. But to not do anything is ignoring a growing problem. Folks need relief.”

Fortune asked readers what they think should be done to address college affordability and student loan debt. Here’s what some of them said. The responses have been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

Lower interest rates

There needs to be a forward-looking solution so that the interest rates are not as high as they are. Education is an investment in your society for the future, and the predatory lending practices need to be destroyed. Cap interest rates at a lower percentage, because the cost of school is tens of thousands of dollars, if not hundreds of thousands.

I also think there needs to be a larger push at really forcing universities to not raise their tuition rates year after year after year.

John Meyers, 32, North Carolina

I don’t think student debt should be forgiven by the government. I do like the idea of the government forgiving or canceling the interest accrued on student loans…Beyond that, the current program seems plenty reasonable: After a certain number of payments based on income, the rest of the debt is eligible for forgiveness.

— Zach Kossow, 27, Texas

Reform and expand other loan forgiveness programs

First, the government must put pressure on colleges to charge a fair price. Second, interest rates for something that is, in theory, beneficial to society (such as obtaining a degree) should be capped. Don’t charge more than X percent or decrease it for every year payments are made on time.

Third, there should be more avenues for Public Service Loan Forgiveness. The criteria should open up to other professions and/or pathways. Fourth, if you make your required income-based repayment plan payments on time, the remaining balance should not be taxable.

Fifth, interest should not accrue in the six-month grace period following graduation. Sixth, loans currently are not forgiven after death or bankruptcy. They should be.

Lastly, the education system needs to better educate young adults at 18-years-old what they are really signing for.

— Amanda Fortunato, 31, Pennsylvania

Allow student loans to be discharged in bankruptcy

If the Biden administration is blocked from forgiving student loans, what they should do is cancel all the interest. Mainly because the government should not profit off what is considered a public service. 

That would be a huge victory and would be similar to forgiving student loan debt. It would also help students pay loans off faster. Right now I am throwing money away just paying interest each month. 

The second thing the administration should do is allow student loan debt to be discharged in bankruptcy. 

When most college kids apply for loans they are young, naive 18-year-olds who don’t think about the long-term consequences. They think they will be rich and successful. The truth is, a college degree is the new GED and most graduates barely make living wages. 

— Thomas J. Warner, 38, Kentucky

Expand education options

If debt cancelation is a no go, we need to stop interest rates and balloons for current student loan holders for good. We need to restructure payment plans to make them more manageable too, because 10% of your gross when your gross income isn’t even enough to cover the rest of your bills is too much.

Additionally, if the key to fighting poverty is an education, then why is it that only the elite can go to school without signing their lives away? What colleges and universities are charging for school is criminal. The length of time students must be in school to earn a degree is also wrong…Shorten the length of educational programs and make them more affordable.

Finally, bring back the hands-on training courses and one-year certificates. Why do we need a four-year degree with a price tag of $50,000 to get a job holding a camera to film a reporter at a news station?

— Melissa Suriano, 42, Michigan

Encourage gap years

Encourage a national culture where high school students take gap years through programs such as AmeriCorps. These programs have several attractive features: They offer high school students the opportunity to gain some real world experience and more time to find their calling (so they aren’t taking out loans to figure this out), the AmeriCorps program offers all participants the option of the Segal Education Award that they can apply to future (or past) studies (equivalent to the max amount of a Pell Grant for one year), and more broadly, these programs provide an opportunity to unite Americans over a common purpose such as poverty here at home—which is a great way to create unity in a time our country needs more of it.

And of course, have the government offer a range of payment plans, make sure interest is extremely low for students who make their monthly payments, and make sure programs like Public Service Loan Forgiveness live up to their promises. 

Travis Rapoza, 31, Massachusetts

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