Pro-Palestinian Protests Could Change Student Loan Forgiveness

By Suzanne Blake

In backlash to the pro-Palestine protests that have erupted across college campuses nationwide, Republicans are looking to make student loan forgiveness more difficult for those who participated in any of the events, and experts told Newsweek what that could mean for the future.

Read more: Student Loan Forgiveness Updates and FAQs

Under the No Bailouts for Campus Criminals Act, people arrested at pro-Palestine protests would be blocked from getting student loan forgiveness in the future, even as President Joe Biden has approved various measures that would erase debt down the line.

Republican Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas introduced the bill, which would prohibit any "pro-Hamas" protestors on college campuses convicted of a crime from getting any loan relief.

So far, Senators Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee, Katie Britt of Alabama, Mike Crapo of Idaho, Ted Cruz of Texas, Steve Daines of Montana, Deb Fischer of Nebraska, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, Josh Hawley of Missouri, Cindy Hyde-Smith of Mississippi, Roger Marshall of Kansas, James Risch of Idaho, Mitt Romney of Utah, Marco Rubio of Florida, Tim Scott of South Carolina, Thom Tillis of North Carolina, Tommy Tuberville of Alabama, J.D. Vance of Ohio, and Roger Wicker of Mississippi have co-sponsored the proposed law.

"Americans who never went to college or responsibly paid off their debts shouldn't have to pay off other people's student loans," Cotton said in a statement. "They especially shouldn't have to pay off the loans of Hamas sympathizers shutting down and defacing campuses."

The penalty for student loan forgiveness would apply to both state and federal offenses in connection to participation in campus protests. In some cases, these protests have led to violence and chants believed to be antisemitic at universities.

In some footage from Columbia University, pro-Palestinian protesters were shown holding a sign reading "Al-Qassam's next targets," looking at a group of Jewish students who were counter-protesting and waving an Israeli flag. The word Al-Qassam refers to the terrorist group Hamas' military units.

Demonstrators have also been heard chanting "Al-Qassam you make us proud, kill another soldier now" and "We say justice, you say how. Burn Tel Aviv to the ground."

"Violent campus protestors laughably demand respect, amnesty, and even takeout food. Our bicameral bill ensures that not one student protester convicted of criminal offenses is bailed out by student loan forgiveness. Not one dime of taxpayer money will fund these criminals," Williams said.

Legal Precedent

Much could change if the proposed bill becomes an approved law.

Alex Beene, a financial literacy instructor at the University of Tennessee at Martin, said the law would cause a stark shift in what has historically been factored into student loan forgiveness.

"Your income, your occupation, and the length of the loan and number of payments you made have been what we've assessed for student debt relief," Beene told Newsweek. "Proposals like this one would take us down a different path and tie it to an external factor like legal history, with arrest for a Pro-Palestenian protest being the sole component for the time being."

But if the law does get fully passed, Beene foresees a "murky path."

"If passed, that could mean future legislators could time other actions to forgiveness, and those might not always align with the political stance in this given situation," Beene said.

Fred Amrein, the CEO/founder of PayForED, went as far as calling it "ridiculous" for either party to be spending time on laws like this.

"We have millions of students unable to know what their college is going to cost them next year and yet we are worried about maybe a few thousand people being denied student loan forgiveness," Amrein told Newsweek.

Based on early reports, many of the protesters are not students, so the arrest caveat likely wouldn't impact many student loan borrowers down the line.

Still, the arrests are adding up. At Columbia University, around 200 protesters have been arrested after setting up an encampment on a main campus quad.

The protests have taken place since shortly after the October 7 attack by the Palestinian militant group Hamas that killed 1,200 people in Israel. After that, Israel started military operations in Gaza, killing more than 34,000 Palestinians as of today, according to The Associated Press.

The campus protests have been occurring alongside Biden's new student loan relief proposals. So far, he's approved around $160 billion in debt forgiveness for roughly 4.6 million borrowers.

Under Biden's most recent debt forgiveness proposal, federal borrowers could get relief in several ways. While some borrowers will see unpaid interest canceled, others will have direct relief if they've made 20 years of payments or more.

For those borrowers, Michael Lux, an attorney and the founder of the Student Loan Sherpa, said the legislation could easily become "unjustly punitive."

"If it became law, someone convicted of a misdemeanor failure to disperse could be permanently banned from student loan forgiveness, even if they served in the military for a decade after college and met all of the requirements to earn Public Service Loan Forgiveness," Lux told Newsweek.

While Republicans might see the law as a way to gain support among their constituents, some view it as a distraction from the larger issues that are happening on the national and international stage.

"I suspect that some politicians may think that this legislation plays well with their base, but I wish they would focus on things like actually addressing the conflict in the Middle East or taking steps to make college more affordable so that massive student debt wouldn't be necessary," Lux said.

Looking at the costs, the bill would also likely cost more than what it saves, Lux added.

"To determine if a borrower is impacted by the legislation the Department of Education would likely need to run a criminal background check in all 50 states for all borrowers potentially eligible for forgiveness," Lux said. "For any borrower with a criminal record, the Department would have to investigate to determine if that crime occurred on a college campus and if it was related to the borrower's conduct at and during a protest."