He’s turning 58 this month, and is still paying off his student debt.

Bargersville resident Ronald Beebe is a licensed clinical psychologist who got his doctorate in psychology from the University of Indianapolis, where most of his $45,000 debt came from. The rest came from his undergraduate studies at Indiana University, Beebe said.

“They didn’t offer me any (grants). I was paying out of pocket for room and board,” Beebe said. “I graduated (high school) 19th in my class, but not quite high enough to qualify for academic scholarships. My folks made just enough money to not qualify for need-based grants, but not enough to tap into their savings and send me off to college.”

Beebe believed that going into debt to get a college degree would help him get a career to pay off his debt later, but the former UIndy professor still has $25,000 left to pay off, as most of his payments have gone toward chipping away at interest accumulated on the loan.

“At the time, the concern was: I need to get through and graduate. What do I need to do now to get through?” Beebe said. “You gotta think about what you gotta do to get through and you’ll make the money later. That’s always been the story with college education. You’ll make millions more in your life, this is an investment and all that lovely crap. To be honest with you, I think most undergrads don’t understand how the loan process works and necessarily how stretching it out through all those years will impact payments.”

Beebe is one of more than 43 million federal loan borrowers currently paying off almost $1.8 trillion in student loan debt, the greatest amount of student loan debt in U.S. history, according to the Education Data Initiative.

The student loan crisis has made national headlines, with the federal government pausing interest on student loans since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. The current extension continues through at least Aug. 31, when it’s up for another extension. Now, the White House is pondering whether to push for partial student loan forgiveness, sparking a national debate on the matter. In the meantime, borrowers can see if they’re eligible for tens of thousands of dollars in student loan forgiveness, if they apply by Oct. 31 through the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program, which applies to public service workers, according to a news release from the organization.

“Certainly, the topic of loan forgiveness is a hot one,” Beebe said. “So many people are saddled with student loan debt and it’s an anchor making success and progress a lot harder to achieve. Having that lifted up would do a lot more in terms of retirement and healthcare and things like that, but the larger issue too is, generations are coming up and how will they afford to go to school? When they incur the cost, will they find a job to make enough to pay it off?”

Not everyone is in favor of student loan forgiveness.

Emily McNally, a 2011 graduate of Whiteland Community High School, pursued undergraduate studies at St. Mary’s College in South Bend, she stayed there for graduate school at the University of Notre Dame, where she got a master’s degree in business management. So far, she’s paid off $34,000 of her debt. With interest, she still has $31,000 to pay, McNally said.

Student loan forgiveness won’t encourage colleges to reign in rising tuition costs, she said.

“I definitely do not think student loan forgiveness across the board is a fair solution to people who have not gone to college or those who have paid off their loans. It would benefit the colleges and universities, which can assume every 10 years or so, the government would reimburse the debt, but the schools are getting paid regardless,” McNally said. “Tuition is rising, but I don’t think I can say the quality of education is keeping pace with that. People are not necessarily so much more prepared for the workforce than 10 years ago, so the government forgiving all those loans doesn’t give universities incentive to cut costs and improve quality.”

Using the argument of student loan forgiveness being unfair to people who have already paid off their loans assumes the worst of borrowers still in debt, Beebe said.

“That’s great they had the wherewithal and opportunity to pay theirs off, but I haven’t worked any less hard doing that with mine than they have. They had an opportunity to make enough from their career to be able to do that, but mine hasn’t had the salary that’s allowed me to,” he said. “I don’t think there’s a difference in how hard people work between those that have (paid off their loans) and those that haven’t. It’s a little insulting.”

Economists at Ball State University and Indiana University say the way out of the crisis, however, is not through student loan forgiveness, but through decreases in tuition.

Retired IU economics professor Bill Witte said wealthier graduates will benefit from student loan forgiveness even when they don’t need it, and the move would be unpopular politically. Furthermore, it would encourage colleges to further raise tuition, he said.

“It is clearly a problem but I don’t think cancellation is the right solution. It will be a mistake politically, and the people that benefit the most will be students that have a lot of debt and those students are primarily students who used loan money to get higher degrees or went to professional schools, like doctors and lawyers. Those are people who, on average, have higher incomes among student borrowers,” Witte said. “Not only have (college faculty) salaries increased, but the number of administrators has gone up a lot. I’m sort of ashamed with the way institutions I’m associated with all my life have increased cost and that hasn’t been associated with a better product.”

The average cost of college per year, including tuition, books, supplies and daily living expenses, has more than doubled since 2000, now at $35,331 a year, according to the Education Data Initiative.

While specifically targeted loan forgiveness for students with lower incomes and greater need may be one solution, it would be better for colleges to be responsible for a portion of each loan that is taken out, Witte said. That would cause colleges to hesitate before they increase tuition. However, colleges may never agree to that, Witte said.

Before loans were more widely available, money from state governments helped fund colleges and kept tuition low. For tuition to remain steady or decrease, state governments will have to pull money from other sources in order to help subsidize these institutions, said Ball State University economics professor John Horowitz.

“A lot will depend on how much belief in public institutions they have and how much they want to allocate to universities to keep tuition low,” Horowitz said. “For years, the standard was to have a fairly low-cost education.”

If student loan forgiveness is to work, it should first go to public servants and people who were taken advantage of by loan companies, he said.

“Certain people have had a horrible time and have a misrepresented idea of what student loans really are and have been taken advantage of,” Horowitz said. “The best case is, groups such as teachers and others who different loan-servicing companies who said ‘we’re taking care of’ but didn’t, go and help those people.”