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‘We are nowhere near done’: Biden’s debt relief plan leaves future students in the lurch

The plan could actually spur schools to raise tuition faster, or shift more financial aid packages toward loans, some advocates fear.

Amherst College is among the most expensive in the country.Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff

Between 2006 and 2013, Belma Moreira borrowed $24,000 to become a certified massage therapist and esthetician. The balance sat unpaid until this summer, when President Biden announced $10,000 in debt forgiveness on student loans, as well as additional relief for alumni of Corinthians College, a collapsed for-profit chain that Moreira attended.

The move marked a giant relief for Moreira, a single mother of four in Foxborough. But after carpal tunnel syndrome ended her career as a masseuse, she’s thinking about going back to school for social work. And college bills for her children — ages 2 to 17 — loom just over the horizon.

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“Call it PTSD, but I’m worried about ending up with loans again,” Moreira said. “I can’t help but be concerned for the future, not only for me, but for my children as well — for my high schooler graduating this year and thinking about college.”

Moreira’s dilemma gets at the shortcomings of Biden’s student debt relief plan, say activists and researchers.

While $10,000 in debt forgiveness is a boon for millions struggling to make loan payments today — the vast majority of them people who earn less than $75,000 a year — it will do little to address the longer-term challenges families face in paying for college. Tuition, which jumped an average of 31 percent between 2010 and 2020, will likely continue to rise. Interest will keep growing for borrowers with balances.

Even if every person eligible for the program receives forgiveness in its entirety, overall college debt will return to the current amount in just four years, said Betsy Mayotte, president of the Institute of Student Loan Advisors.

“Don’t get me wrong. I am tickled about forgiveness, about something getting done,” Mayotte added. “But it doesn’t address the real issue: the cost of higher education.”

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So the question now is: What’s next?

A host of progressive politicians agree that Biden’s August announcement was simply a starting point in the fight for education reform. Sarah Groh, chief of staff for Representative Ayanna Pressley, said $10,000 of forgiveness is not a “mission accomplished moment”; Pressley first pushed for $50,000 of cancellation.

“When it comes to what education reform should look like in Massachusetts, we are nowhere near done,” Groh said.

Biden’s plan includes moves that “make the loan system more manageable” in perpetuity, a statement from the White House reads. It would reduce the amount of discretionary income borrowers can put toward loan payments, eliminate interest for those meeting the monthly minimums, and forgive loan balances under $12,000 after 10 years, rather than 20 as was required previously.

President Biden was joined by Education Secretary Miguel Cardona while announcing the student debt policy.AL DRAGO/NYT

But those amendments would apply only to people who already hold college debt, doing little for those weighing whether to attend college or take on loans at all, said Monnica Chan, an assistant professor of higher education at the University of Massachusetts Boston.

“The proposed rule could make a change for those who borrow,” she said. “What about people who don’t? People who don’t attend college because of how expensive it is? This won’t change things for them.”

If anything — some say — colleges could use forgiveness as as an excuse to raise tuition even faster. The data won’t be clear until at least the next academic year, but several New England schools, including Amherst College, Brown University, and Tufts, are already among the most expensive in the country.

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“Schools have virtually no skin in the game. We’ve opened a Pandora’s box,” Mayotte said. “The schools could say, ‘The government has forgiven loans before. Who says they won’t do it again?’ ”

Jay Zagorsky, a professor of markets and public policy at Boston University, said he can see a future where institutions offer students fewer grants — which do not need to be repaid — and push them instead towards loans. Why? Because people may be more willing to take on debt after the relief announcement and proposed caps on interest payments in the future.

The ultimate solution to sky-high tuition is hazy.

Researchers say change should start with state governments, which fund public universities. Over time, many have given less to institutions, which in turn have pushed costs on to students. The nonprofit Center on Budget and Policies Priorities found in 2019 that after adjusting for inflation, state funding for public two- and four-year colleges had fallen by $6.6 billion, or on average 13 percent less per student, over a decade.

But Rich Staisloff, founder of college consulting firm the rpk group, said institutions add to the problem. Most operate with “enormous overcapacity,” meaning they could cut costs drastically or accommodate far more students within the same budget.

The towering price of tuition, Staisloff added, deters some from attending college and leaves others with thousands in debt — with or without loan forgiveness.

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“The announcement has zero impact on student accessibility,” he said. “It’s taking one of America’s biggest problems and patching it up with a piece of tape.”


Diti Kohli can be reached at diti.kohli@globe.com.Follow her on Twitter @ditikohli_.