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PolitiFact: Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis Exaggerates Outstanding Graduate Student Loan Debt

Many households have undergraduate debt even though someone in the household also has a graduate degree

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Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis opposes President Joe Biden's willingness to explore additional student debt forgiveness, saying that it would primarily benefit people who earned advanced degrees.

"The student debt that is out there, almost 60% of it is graduate school debt," DeSantis said at a press conference on April 29. "Why would you make a truck driver, or a waitress, or a construction worker pay off the debt for somebody that did a Ph.D. program in gender studies?"

As a presidential candidate, Biden promised to forgive all undergraduate student debt for people earning up to $125,000. More recent discussions have involved providing up to $10,000 in student debt relief for people earning up to $125,000. Because the proposal is still very much up for debate, it’s unclear whether the debt relief would be tied to income. 

Still, DeSantis’ claim that "almost 60%" of outstanding student debt comes from graduate school is overstated.

DeSantis press secretary Christina Pushaw referenced an article from the Poynter Institute for Media Studies (which owns PolitiFact). 

The article centered on how Biden could move to relieve student loan debt and cited the Brookings Institution, which said, "56% of the outstanding student debt is owed by households that hold graduate degrees."

The key distinction is that the Brookings data focused on households with debt. 

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Many households have undergraduate debt even though someone in the household also has a graduate degree. It doesn’t mean that all the debt held was spent on graduate school. 

"Assuming that all student loans in a household are graduate school debt if anybody in the household has a graduate degree significantly overstates the amount of graduate school debt," Mark Kantrowitz, a student loan expert, told PolitiFact. 

The Congressional Budget Office looked at the student debt picture in 2017. Of $1.4 trillion in total debt, CBO said, about 60% was spent during undergraduate school. The remaining 40% of outstanding student loan debt was spent during graduate school.

So, DeSantis has it almost exactly backward.

A majority of the federal student loan dollars disbursed during the 2020-21 school year were borrowed by undergraduate students, per a report from College Board, a nonprofit education group. 

According to the College Board, 55% of bachelor’s degree recipients graduated with debt, holding an average debt level of more than $25,000. Though an undergraduate student, on average, borrows less money than their graduate school counterparts, the pool of people seeking a graduate education is far smaller.

DeSantis said "almost 60%" of student loan debt "is graduate school debt."

He’s got it backward. About 60% of the outstanding student loan debt came from undergraduate school, according to a 2017 analysis from the Congressional Budget Office. On average, graduate students borrow more money than their undergraduate counterparts, but more people pursue undergraduate degrees.

DeSantis’ statement contains an element of truth but ignores critical facts that would give a different impression. Thus, it is rated Mostly False.

politifact mostly false
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