Professor’s Study Cited in Federal Student Debt Relief Case

February 7, 2023

Research examining the pandemic’s impacts on student borrowers is used as evidence in loan forgiveness case before the U.S. Supreme Court.

Núria Rodríguez-Planas
Professor Núria Rodríguez-Planas studied the effect of the pandemic on federal Pell grant recipients.

In a highly publicized case related to federal student loan forgiveness, President Joe Biden has asked the U.S. Supreme Court to vacate an injunction that blocked his administration’s student debt relief plan from taking effect.

As part of the petition, the president’s legal team cited a study by Professor Núria Rodríguez-Planas (GC/Queens College, Economics) in an amicus curiae brief filed last month. The document highlights research, published in the Economics of Education Review, that specifies how the COVID-19 pandemic is likely to have a negative economic impact on lower-income borrowers.

The study looked at federal Pell-grant recipients — undergraduate students who demonstrate exceptional financial need — during the first six months of the pandemic.

“What I found is that, in terms of economic consequences, the picture was grimmer for Pell recipients because they were 20% more likely to lose a job due to the pandemic than non-Pell recipients, and 17% more likely to experience earning losses than students who had never been Pell recipients,” Rodríguez-Planas said.

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The study reported, however, that 39% of non-Pell recipients lost their jobs over the same period. And, the professor noted, both Pell recipients and non-recipients expected to experience about the same levels of academic disruption as a result of the pandemic.

Announced over the summer, the federal debt relief plan was poised to cancel $10,000 in student loan debt for individual borrowers earning less than $125,000 a year, or $250,000 per household, and an additional $10,000 for Pell-grant recipients. More than 40 million people are eligible for debt reduction through the program.

Six Republican-led states filed a lawsuit in September, claiming the administration overstepped its authority when pushing the plan forward and they would lose vital tax revenue from student loan payments. Then, in November, a three-judge panel from the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals issued an injunction that halted the plan until further order.

Rodríguez-Planas pointed to evidence, highlighted in the petition, which illustrates that low-income borrowers tend to borrow less, due to financial aid and lower tuitions at public schools. “So, that would mean that a $10,000 or $20,000 reduction would be a much larger fraction of their loan,” she said.

At its core, the debt relief plan makes practical sense, she said. “It's more equitable,” Rodríguez-Planas said. “Because it's giving help to those individuals that need it most.”

On that note, Rodríguez-Planas praised CUNY for its own debt relief initiative, the CUNY Comeback Program. Through the program, in 2021, CUNY forgave almost $100 million in unpaid tuition and fees for nearly 52,000 students affected by the pandemic.

The professor said she was delighted that her work was cited at such a high level of government. “I've always cared a lot about the policy implications of my research,” she said. “I've spent over 30 years doing research, basically trying to understand how we can improve human capital development and labor market trajectories of vulnerable workers. The fact that my work has an impact at the policy level is something that makes me very happy.”

Rodríguez-Planas was recently named a visiting scholar at the Russell Sage Foundation. She and Presidential Professor Leslie McCall (Sociology, Political Science) will serve as foundation scholars during the 2023–2024 academic year.   

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