Why Student Loan Forgiveness is a Social Justice Issue

Commentary by Aaron Taylor
 
The budget proposal recently released by the Trump administration should greatly concern anyone who believes that higher education should be widely accessible, equitable, and premised on actualizing the American Dream.  Two components pertaining to student loan repayment and forgiveness are particularly troubling: the first would lengthen to 30 years the mandatory repayment window before graduate school loan debt can be forgiven; the second would eliminate the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program.
 
When President Lyndon Baines Johnson signed the Higher Education Act in 1965, it was a watershed moment.  The social and political climate of the 1960s served as an impetus for a new federal emphasis on using schooling to cure racial and economic inequities.  For the first time, the federal government positioned access to higher education in social justice terms.  Over the next couple decades, the federal government introduced an impressive array of grant programs aimed at fostering college matriculation among people who were otherwise unlikely to attend.
 
This enlightened generosity attenuated somewhat in the 1980s, as political priorities shifted.  Student loans became a central component of the student aid system, but the underlying premise remained access – hence why most student loans are granted without much regard for creditworthiness and loan interest is subsidized for financially-needy students.  But this new approach to access comes with immense risks for students from disadvantaged backgrounds.  These students tend to rely more heavily on loans than others, and they tend to get paid less in the workforce.  These trends are highlighted dramatically in legal education.
 
According to data from the Law School Survey of Student Engagement (LSSSE), about 83% of law students incurred or expected to incur student loan debt in 2016.  This high level of usage along with the high costs of legal education render law graduates a highly-indebted group.  The typical law graduate likely owes more than $100,000, placing her in the top 3-4% of student loan indebtedness.   
 
Student loan reliance and indebtedness are not distributed evenly among law students.  Blacks, Latinos, and students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds have the highest rates of borrowing and the highest average balances.   On the LSSSE Survey, 95% of Black respondents and 92% of Latinos reported relying on student loans to cover law school costs.  These proportions were followed closely by the 89% rate among respondents for whom neither parent had more than a high school diploma.  Reliance among White and non-first-generation students was high, but tangibly lower at 80%.  
 
LSSSE asks respondents how much law school debt they expect to incur by graduation.  The resulting trends are notable.  Fifty-six percent (56%) of Latino/a and 52% of Black respondents expected to owe more than $100,000 from law school; the proportion among White students was 37%.  Similar trends were observed when respondents who were first-generation college graduates were compared to their presumptively more affluent peers.  While being Black or Latino/a or a first-generation college graduate does not perfectly correlate with economic disadvantage, people belonging to these groups are certainly more likely than others to come from disadvantaged backgrounds.  
 
Being a member of a disadvantaged group influences employment outcomes.  A national study of lawyers who entered the profession in the year 2000 found that Black and Latino/a lawyers were less likely to be employed in larger law firms and more likely to be employed in lower-paying government and public sector jobs.  Parental education also influences the settings in which lawyers work, with one study finding that lawyers whose fathers held professional degrees were 39% more likely to work in the largest law firms than other lawyers, and less likely to work in government.
 
For disadvantaged students, higher education is the surest path to socioeconomic advancement; but the path is fraught with risks.  These students must essentially gamble on themselves and on the chances that they will be able to repay their loans and reap worthwhile payoffs beyond their obligations.  Student loan forgiveness provisions are intended to spread some of these risks across society, given the reams of data confirming the broad public benefits of an educated citizenry.
 
Some people argue that disadvantaged students should simply forego law school in favor of other pursuits.  This is where the notion of social justice becomes particularly important.  Lawyers from disadvantaged groups are more likely to represent other disadvantaged people and interests, thereby, broadening access to justice.   The salaries for these lawyers tend to be lower than others.  Without income-based repayment options and loan forgiveness, it would be very difficult for many people to justify taking on the risks of legal education.  The result would be a legal profession that remains aloof and unresponsive to the needs of large swathes of the population – namely, the poor and most of the middle-class.  
 
These issues are transcendent, impacting most any profession for which its societal value is not fully reflected in the typical salaries – teaching and social work, for example.  Therefore, in order to ensure the preservation of our democracy, we should remain true to the social welfare origins of the federal student aid system.  Loan forgiveness options must be fortified as a matter of social justice and equity, not restricted.
 
The author is Executive Director of the AccessLex Center for Legal Education Excellence and an associate professor at Saint Louis University School of Law.
 
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