ASBMB public hearing testimony submitted to the Dept. of Education regarding student loan relief

July 20, 2023

The American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology appreciates that the Department of Education has held public hearing sessions on the impact of restarting student loan payments and gladly submits this testimony.  

The ASBMB represents over 10,000 researchers, trainees and students within the research enterprise, and about a quarter of our members are funded by federal science agencies to carry out their scientific research. The research enterprise relies on these workers not only to conduct important scientific research at their institutions but also to propel the U.S. research enterprise forward by teaching at leading higher education institutions and working in the pharmaceutical and biotechnology industries. It’s through this lens of representing students, recent graduates and others in the biosciences that the ASBMB urges the Department of Education to provide student debt relief. 

Student debt has more than doubled over the past two decades. The average student is taking on more debt: The balance per borrower rose by 25% from 2009 to 2021. A significant portion of this increased debt is the direct result of declining financial support from states to public institutions, resulting in universities raising tuition to compensate for that difference. In addition, student loan debt disproportionately burdens historically marginalized people. Black college students generally take on more debt than white students; Black, Latinx and American Indian students are more likely to default on their loans than white students.  

The U.S. research enterprise demands a diverse and inclusive workforce. It’s vital for federal agencies to promote diversity and equity in STEM, and that necessitates alleviating the financial burden of student loans.  

The student debt crisis dissuades new grads from pursuing advanced degrees. It’s simply not worth it having a lower quality of life and financial instability. The average graduate degree holder owes up to $102,400 in cumulative federal student loan debt.  

Mounting student loan debt aggravates the significant financial stress STEM graduate students and postdoctoral researchers are already facing. These young scientists’ stipends often are not big enough to cover their basic costs of living, forcing them to put off important milestones, such as purchasing a home and having children.  

The ASBMB urges the Department of Education to explore programs and other opportunities to reduce the financial burden of student loans. The U.S. research enterprise relies on STEM students at every level — undergraduate, graduate, postdoctoral and beyond. 

Student loan forgiveness and repayments programs associated with public service is a valuable tool that alleviates the burden of student loans on individuals who chose to work in the public/nonprofit sector; however, these programs could be significantly expanded so more individuals can benefit from them. For example, the National Institutes of Health have a loan repayment program that aims to counteract “the financial pressure by repaying up to $50,000 annually of a researcher’s qualified education debt in return for commitment to engage in NIH mission-relevant research.” The outcomes from this program have been enormously positive. The Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program can alleviate the burden of student loans, but it requires an individual to make 120 qualifying monthly payments. This is a significant burden to many individuals and has hampered financial stability for over 10 years. The ASBMB encourages the Department of Education to explore how programs like these can be expanded to provide relief to more individuals.  

The ASBMB also recommends the Department of Education allow postdoctoral scholars to defer student loan payments across the board. By definition, a postdoc is an individual in a defined period of mentored training following the achievement of a terminal degree. Most postdocs report their salaries in the range of $39,000 to $55,000, which barely equates to a living wage in most states for one adult with no dependents. Requiring postdocs who are already underpaid and overworked to also pay toward their student loans is pushing researchers out of STEM. While some universities allow deferment, it is not standardized across the country. We urge the Department of Education to standardize the option of deferment and prevent interest rates from accruing during a postdoctoral training period. This would significantly alleviate the financial burden many young scientists are currently facing. 

Education attainment should not come with such a high price tag.  

Furthermore, the longevity and sustainability of the U.S. research enterprise is at stake. Our economy relies on extraordinary STEM talent, and overloading the next generation of scientists with debt will only push people out of the research enterprise instead of drawing them in. The ASBMB appreciates the Department of Education’s efforts to address this crisis and calls on the agency to implement policies that will help the next generation of discoverers and innovators in this country. 

Docket ID: ED-2023-OPE-0123-0001