Student Debt Cancellation Is Far From “Elitist”

Student Debt Cancellation Is Far From “Elitist”

September 14, 2022
By: David A. Bergeron

One potentially potent argument against cancelling federal student loan is that such an action is inherently elitist benefiting only those who went to a four-year college or university to earn a bachelor’s degree. However, such a view is not rooted in the facts about who receives federal student loans and for what kinds of programs.

For example, more than 60 percent of graduates earning a bachelor’s degree took out a student loan. Perhaps surprisingly for many so did those seeking an undergraduate certificate in 2016.[1] Only those obtaining an associate’s degree had borrowed at rates below 50 percent.

This data confirms what we know about borrowing within a single academic year:  those seeking an undergraduate certificate or a bachelor’s degree are more likely to borrow and those seeking an associate’s degree are less likely to borrow.

If those seeking an undergraduate certificate are more likely to borrow, what types of programs are they borrowing for? Most frequently they are pursuing a certificate in the following disciplines :

So, with that myth overturned, let’s see what else we can know about those carrying student loan debt from their postsecondary education into the workforce. It is important to understand that while the rates at which students pursuing an undergraduate certificate borrowed rose slowly over the course of the last two decades from 51% in 1996 to 67% in 2016, the amounts that these students had to borrow has risen much more dramatically as costs have increased. Indeed, a student graduating with an undergraduate certificate in 2016 had taken on an average debt of $10,322 which was 2.75 times the average debt of similar graduates in 1996.

To offer a bit of contrast, the rate at which those obtaining a bachelor’s degree borrowed increased from 59% to 69% between 1996 and 2016 but saw the average debt increase to $20,432 which was 1.8 times the average debt of bachelor’s degree graduates in 1996.

To complete the picture of undergraduate borrowing, the rate at which those earning an associate’s degree borrowed increased from 40% in 1996 to 48% in 2016. The average debt of these graduates was $8,889 which was a threefold increase over the average debt of associate’s degree recipients in 1996.

So, it is far from elitist to cancel up to $20,000 in student loan debt for those who struggled to pay for college as an undergraduate. It seems an appropriate correction to a flawed system that allowed costs – and the resultant debt – to increase.

Tools like income-based repayment, teacher and public service loan forgiveness, and closed school, false certification, defense to repayment, and disabilities discharges have been imperfect solutions at best. Efforts to reform these systems were a priority of the Obama administration and now it is up to the Biden administration to complete this critical task.

At the same time, we need to do some national soul searching about the appropriate mechanisms to constrain the price of education beyond high school to ensure that everyone has access to a free public option for completing at least 2 years of much needed education and training. We also need to re-think the role that student loans play in graduate and professional education. But those are critical topics for another day. Today, we need to get the mission of cancelling up to $20,000 in student loan debt accomplished.

David A. Bergeron is a senior fellow for postsecondary education at the Center for American Progress. Bergeron previously served as the acting assistant secretary for postsecondary education at the U.S. Department of Education.


[1] All estimates included in this blog post were derived using the National Center for Education Statistics PowerStats tool available at

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