Commentary

Loan forgiveness and med school debt: What about me?


 

This transcript has been edited for clarity.

Hi. I’m Art Caplan. I run the division of medical ethics at New York University Grossman School of Medicine.

Many of you know that President Biden created a loan forgiveness program, forgiving up to $10,000 against federal student loans, including graduate and undergraduate education. The Department of Education is supposed to provide up to $20,000 in debt cancellation to Pell Grant recipients who have loans that are held by the Department of Education. Borrowers can get this relief if their income is less than $125,000 for an individual or $250,000 for married couples.

Many people have looked at this and said, “Hey, wait a minute. I paid off my loans. I didn’t get any reimbursement. That isn’t fair.”

One group saddled with massive debt are people who are still carrying their medical school loans, who often still have huge amounts of debt, and either because of the income limits or because they don’t qualify because this debt was accrued long in the past, they’re saying, “What about me? Don’t you want to give any relief to me?”

This is a topic near and dear to my heart because I happen to be at a medical school, NYU, that has decided for the two medical schools it runs – our main campus, NYU in Manhattan and NYU Langone out on Long Island – that we’re going to go tuition free. We’ve done it for a couple of years.

We did it because I think all the administrators and faculty understood the tremendous burden that debt poses on people who both carry forward their undergraduate debt and then have medical school debt. This really leads to very difficult situations – which we have great empathy for – about what specialty you’re going to go into, whether you have to moonlight, and how you’re going to manage a huge burden of debt.

Many people don’t have sympathy out in the public. They say doctors make a large amount of money and they live a nice lifestyle, so we’re not going to relieve their debt. The reality is that, whoever you are, short of Bill Gates or Elon Musk, having hundreds of thousands of dollars of debt is no easy task to live with and to work off.

Still, when we created free tuition at NYU for our medical school, there were many people who paid high tuition fees in the past. Some of them said to us, “What about me?” We decided not to try to do anything retrospectively. The plan was to build up enough money so that we could handle no-cost tuition going forward. We didn’t really have it in our pocketbook to help people who’d already paid their debts or were saddled with NYU debt. Is it fair? No, it’s probably not fair, but it’s an improvement.

That’s what I want people to think about who are saying, “What about my medical school debt? What about my undergraduate plus medical school debt?” I think we should be grateful when efforts are being made to reduce very burdensome student loans that people have. It’s good to give that benefit and move it forward.

Does that mean no one should get anything unless everyone with any kind of debt from school is covered? I don’t think so. I don’t think that’s fair either.

It is possible that we could continue to agitate politically and say, let’s go after some of the health care debt. Let’s go after some of the things that are still driving people to have to work more than they would or to choose specialties that they really don’t want to be in because they have to make up that debt.

It doesn’t mean the last word has been said about the politics of debt relief or, for that matter, the price of going to medical school in the first place and trying to see whether that can be driven down.

I don’t think it’s right to say, “If I can’t benefit, given the huge burden that I’m carrying, then I’m not going to try to give relief to others.” I think we’re relieving debt to the extent that we can do it. The nation can afford it. Going forward is a good thing. It’s wrong to create those gigantic debts in the first place.

What are we going to do about the past? We may decide that we need some sort of forgiveness or reparations for loans that were built up for others going backwards. I wouldn’t hold hostage the future and our children to what was probably a very poor, unethical practice about saddling doctors and others in the past with huge debt.

I’m Art Caplan at the division of medical ethics at New York University Grossman School of Medicine. Thank you for watching.

A version of this article first appeared on Medscape.com.

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