How the ex-Trump official who wants to cancel student debt would fix higher education funding

Key Points
  • A. Wayne Johnson, who recently resigned from the Department of Education, details how he would reduce the amount of student loan debt.
  • Johnson wants up to $50,000 in student debt per person to be canceled and says the federal government shouldn't be providing loans.
  • The Republican, who is seeking an open U.S. Senate seat in Georgia, calls his plan “comprehensive, bold and, quite frankly, decisive."
Former Trump official who called student loan system broken proposes forgiveness program
Former Trump official who called student loan system broken proposes forgiveness program

The former Trump administration official who wants to cancel student debt told CNBC on Wednesday that his plan to solve the loan crisis is "comprehensive, bold and, quite frankly, decisive."

A central tenet: minimizing the government's role.

"The federal government should not be in the business of making loans directly to consumers, for several different reasons," A. Wayne Johnson said on "The Exchange."

"But probably the most important is it's an unlimited supply of federal funds chasing an unlimited demand, and the student basically being the facilitator encouraged by the schools to take on the debt, which they burden for decades," said Johnson, who plans to seek an open Senate seat in Georgia as a Republican.

Johnson's resignation last week from the Department of Education turned heads because the Betsy DeVos appointee called for massive cancellation of student loan debt.

Johnson spent time overseeing the nation's nearly $1.6 trillion student loan portfolio, before leading an initiative to overhaul how the department handled loan payments.

To address the burgeoning debt load, Johnson said he is advocating for up to $50,000 of loan forgiveness for all borrowers.

But any proposal to cancel student debt has to make sure there is not "going to be a recurrence of those types of loans from the federal government in the future," he said.

"So ... how are you going to satisfy higher educational availability/attainment?" Johnson said.

For Johnson, the solution is offering every student up to a $50,000 grant to use toward higher education — whether it's college or vocational programs.

He also is calling for a $50,000 tax credit for those who have already paid off their loans.

"It's all of those in a comprehensive, bold, and quite frankly, decisive package that sets the tone," said Johnson, who said he has 35 years of consumer-finance experience and a doctoral degree in higher education leadership.

It's "crystal clear" the student loan situation needs congressional action, Johnson said.

Johnson's calls for debt reduction put him alongside Sens. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., and Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., two of the most liberal candidates seeking the Democratic presidential nomination.

Senator Bernie Sanders and U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren shake hands before the start of the first night of the second 2020 Democratic U.S. presidential debate in Detroit, Michigan, July 30, 2019.
Lucas Jackson | Reuters

Warren has called for up to $50,000 in loan forgiveness for people who have a household income under $100,000; those who earn between $100,000 and $250,000 would be eligible for reduction on a sliding scale.

Sanders' proposal calls for the complete elimination of student loan debt in the U.S., the sum of which has eclipsed credit card and auto debt.

Devos, the education secretary, has called Democrats' plans "crazy."

Currently, the average college graduate leaves school with nearly $30,000 of loan debt, up from $10,000 in the 1990s. Nearly 30% of student loan borrowers are in delinquency or default.

Johnson, whose doctoral dissertation focused on student loans, said that it became clear to him about six months ago that "we were making a very broken, flawed system from a law standpoint operate more efficiently and basically putting more people into a problematic situation."

The Senate vacancy in Georgia, created by Sen. Johnny Isakson's decision to resign at the end of the year, prompted Johnson to consider leaving the Education Department, he said.

"I saw that as the inflection point to make the move," he said.