The Case for More Debt: Expanding College Affordability by Expanding Income-Driven Repayment

20 Pages Posted: 17 May 2018 Last revised: 18 Jul 2019

See all articles by John R. Brooks

John R. Brooks

Georgetown University Law Center


Income-Driven Repayment (IDR) for federal student loans is rapidly becoming the primary tool that the federal government uses to provide progressive funding to individuals to pay for college. Under these programs, borrowers can choose to pay back their loans as a percentage of income, with eventual debt forgiveness after 10-25 years. If administered well, these programs can make student loans affordable for everyone, regardless of income. In this symposium essay, I argue that for IDR to meet its goal of providing affordable higher education to everyone, the federal government needs to raise the individual borrowing limits on Direct Loans and issue substantially more debt than it does today. This perhaps counterintuitive proposal — help students by increasing debt — follows from the observation that an IDR student loan is conceptually not at all like traditional debt and is more akin to a tax instrument. If a borrower promises only to pay a percentage of income, the nominal amount of the debt is not as crucial. Furthermore, if a student cannot cover net tuition with federal student loans, the student may be forced to use private loans or to work excessively, which can lead to worse outcomes.

Suggested Citation

Brooks, John R., The Case for More Debt: Expanding College Affordability by Expanding Income-Driven Repayment. Utah Law Review, Vol. 2018, Pp. 847, Available at SSRN:

John R. Brooks (Contact Author)

Georgetown University Law Center ( email )

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