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A Summary and Analysis of Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House

By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)

A Doll’s House is one of the most important plays in all modern drama. Written by the Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen in 1879, the play is well-known for its shocking ending, which attracted both criticism and admiration from audiences when it premiered.

Before we offer an analysis of A Doll’s House , it might be worth recapping the ‘story’ of the play, which had its roots in real-life events involving a friend of Ibsen’s.

A Doll’s House : summary

The play opens on Christmas Eve. Nora Helmer has returned home from doing the Christmas shopping. Her husband, a bank manager named Torvald, asks her how much she has spent. Nora confides to her friend Mrs Linde that, shortly after she and Torvald married, he fell ill and she secretly borrowed some money to pay for his treatment. Mrs Linde is looking for work from Nora’s husband.

She is still paying that money back (by setting aside a little from her housekeeping money on a regular basis) to the man she borrowed it from, Krogstad – a man who, it just so happens, works for Nora’s husband … who is about to sack Krogstad for forging another person’s signature.

But Krogstad knows Nora’s secret, that she forged her father’s signature, and he tells her in no uncertain terms that, if she lets her husband sack him, Krogstad will make sure her husband knows her secret.

But Torvald refuses to grant Nora’s request when she beseeches him to go easy on Krogstad and give him another chance. It looks as though all is over for Nora and her husband will soon know what she did.

The next day – Christmas Day – Nora is waiting for the letter from Krogstad to arrive, and for her secret to be revealed. She entreats her husband to be lenient towards Krogstad, but again, Torvald refuses, sending the maid off with the letter for Krogstad which informs him that he has been dismissed from Torvald’s employment.

Doctor Rank, who is dying of an incurable disease, arrives as Nora is getting ready for a fancy-dress party. Nora asks him if he will help her, and he vows to do so, but before she can say any more, Krogstad appears with his letter for Torvald. Now he’s been sacked, he is clearly going to go through with his threat and tell his former employer the truth about what Helmer’s wife did.

When Mrs Linde – who was romantically involved with Krogstad – arrives, she tries to appeal to Krogstad’s better nature, but he refuses to withdraw the letter. Then Torvald arrives, and Nora dances for him to delay her husband from reading Krogstad’s letter.

The next act takes place the following day: Boxing Day. The Helmers are at their fancy-dress party. Meanwhile, we learn that Mrs Linde broke it off with Krogstad because he had no money, and she needed cash to pay for her mother’s medical treatment. Torvald has offered Mrs Linde Krogstad’s old job, but she says that she really wants him – money or no money – and the two of them are reconciled.

When Nora returns with Torvald from the party, Mrs Linde, who had prevented Krogstad from having a change of heart and retrieving his letter, tells Nora that she should tell her husband everything. Nora refuses, and Torvald reads the letter from Krogstad anyway.

Nora is distraught, and sure enough, Torvald blames her – until another letter from Krogstad arrives, cancelling Nora’s debt to him, whereupon Torvald forgives her completely.

But Nora has realised something about her marriage to Torvald, and, changing out of her fancy-dress outfit, she announces that she is leaving him. She takes his ring and gives him hers, before going to the door and leaving her husband – slamming the door behind her.

A Doll’s House : analysis

A Doll’s House is one of the most important plays in all of modern theatre. It arguably represents the beginning of modern theatre itself. First performed in 1879, it was a watershed moment in naturalist drama, especially thanks to its dramatic final scene. In what has become probably the most famous statement made about the play, James Huneker observed: ‘That slammed door reverberated across the roof of the world.’

Why? It’s not hard to see why, in fact. And the answer lies in the conventional domestic scenarios that were often the subject of European plays of the period when Ibsen was writing. Indeed, these scenarios are well-known to anyone who’s read Ibsen’s play, because A Doll’s House is itself a classic example of this kind of conventional play.

Yes: the shocking power of Ibsen’s play lies not in the main part of the play itself but in its very final scene, which undoes and subverts everything that has gone before.

This conventional play, the plot of which A Doll’s House follows with consummate skill on Ibsen’s part, is a French tradition known as the ‘ well-made play ’.

Well-made plays have a tight plot, and usually begin with a secret kept from one or more characters in the play (regarding A Doll’s House : check), a back-story which is gradually revealed during the course of the play (check), and a dramatic resolution, which might either involve reconciliation when the secret is revealed, or, in the case of tragedies, the death of one or more of the characters.

Ibsen flirts with both kinds of endings, the comic and the tragic, at the end of A Doll’s House : when Nora knows her secret’s out, she contemplates taking her own life. But when Torvald forgives her following the arrival of Krogstad’s second letter, it looks as though a tragic ending has been averted and we have a comic one in its place.

Just as the plot of the play largely follows these conventions, so Ibsen is careful to portray both Torvald Helmer and his wife Nora as a conventional middle-class married couple. Nora’s behaviour at the end of the play signals an awakening within her, but this is all the more momentous, and surprising, because she is hardly what we would now call a radical feminist.

Similarly, her husband is not nasty to her: he doesn’t mistreat her, or beat her, or put her down, even if he patronises her as his ‘doll’ or ‘bird’ and encourages her to behave like a silly little creature for him. But Nora encourages him to carry on doing so.

They are both caught up in bourgeois ideology: financial security is paramount (as symbolised by Torvald’s job at the bank); the wife is there to give birth to her husband’s children and to dote on him a little, dancing for him and indulging in his occasional whims.

A Doll’s House takes such a powerful torch to all this because it lights a small match underneath it, not because it douses everything in petrol and sets off a firebomb.

And it’s worth noting that, whilst Ibsen was a champion of women’s rights and saw them as their husbands’ intellectual equal, A Doll’s House does not tell us whether we should support or condemn Nora’s decision to walk out on her husband. She has, after all, left her three blameless children without a mother, at least until she returns – if she ever does return. Is she selfish?

Of course, that is something that the play doesn’t answer for us. Ibsen himself later said that he was not ‘tendentious’ in anything he wrote: like a good dramatist, he explores themes which perhaps audiences and readers hadn’t been encouraged to explore before, but he refuses to bang what we would now call the ‘feminist’ drum and turn his play into a piece of political protest.

2 thoughts on “A Summary and Analysis of Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House”

This powerful play foretold the 1960’s monumental epic of Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique, A similar awakening for middle class women, of their unnamed discontent within a marriage. Both paved the the way to the Feminist Movement of the 1970’s where with increased consciousness of economic inequities, women rebelled, just as Nora had done. Homage is owing to both Ibsen in his era and Friedan in hers. Today there are increasing numbers of women serving as Presidents of their nations and in the USA a female Vice-President recently elected to that prestigious office.

I remember reading the play while being a college student. It seemed so sad but at the same time so close to real life. Maybe our lives are quite sad after all.

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A Doll’s House Modernism Theme Research Paper

A Doll’s House is a thought-provoking and insightful play because it boldly endorses modernist philosophies even at a time when romanticism was still rife in theatre. Henrik Ibsen set a precedent for other dramatists because he was realist, supported Marxism, and used melodrama to write this play.

Analysis of A Doll’s House Modernism Theories

Modernism was a way of thinking that started in the last half of the nineteenth century and continued into the twentieth century. It was considered as a term that embraced the nonconventional. In other words, this is a break from the traditional way of interpreting and creating; it is not limited to one discipline.

At the time when modernism was at its peak, concerned advocates felt that there had been too much emphasis on order or chronology, so theirs was to break away from these traditions. On another level, modernism was seen as an alternative to the use of bureaucracies / the elite as a source of inspiration for works of art, literature, and the like.

Modernists questioned this focus and therefore chose to alter this progressively (McFarlane, 8). Their primary aim was to defy norms. Goings-on also motivated this phenomenon in the western world. At the time, the world had just gone through the First World War and was subsequently facing its repercussions through the depression.

Europeans, therefore, questioned the relevance of the romantic era. They now felt that the focus on virtues and evil/ good could not apply to their prevailing circumstances. Consequently, one can say that the political and social environment was an essential determinant of this movement. It injected a new wave of creativity in the arts and paved the way for many original pieces.

In A Doll’s House , one of the outstanding depictions of this way of thinking was seen at the end of the play; in other words, the overall plot of the story has been used to propagate the modernist agenda.

A Doll’s House Moral Lesson as a Result Of Modernism Impact

Through this ending, Ibsen is fundamentally questioning societal rules or the status quo. The main character was willing to take her own life so that she could save her husband’s reputation but soon finds out that he was nothing more than a selfish and narcissistic individual.

He underplayed her great sacrifices and even told her that she was like a child in his eyes. Nora Helmer, therefore, gains insight into his real persona and decides that it is worthless to continue living with him. Nora was bold enough to question her community’s norms and even took it to the point of leaving her spouse (Ibsen, 58).

This unexpected twist at the end of the play makes it very modern because it looked at the institution of marriage, gender roles, and family duties in a whole new light. It should be noted that in the previous era of romanticism, such a play would have ended in reconciliation between Nora and Torvald, but Ibsen was a realist and a modernist. An in the play A Doll’s House , modernism themes are evident.

He wanted to have an unpredictable plot and relevant setting that would leave audiences uncertain but hopeful about the future of the main character. No heroes were brought in to save the day, and this broke from usual theatre endings. The aspect of modernism that comes out, in this case, is melodrama.

Another way in which Ibsen utilizes plot to propagate modernist thought is through the structure of the play. In his time, most versions of well-made plays started with an account of the characters in the play.

This would usually be seen in the first and maybe the second act. In the second part, the authors would often present a dilemma faced by the main character. After that, the play would end with a reaction to the difficulty, and hence teach audiences a moral lesson or two.

However, through A Doll’s House , Ibsen created a different structure. In his play, he has a description of a dilemma but lacks a resolution. He ends the play with a discussion on what will go on and therefore leaves audiences curious about what will happen to the main characters even as time proceeds.

The author also uses the theme to advance the modernist agenda from feminist prospective as well. At his time, women had no voice; this was seen by the fact that most of them had to get the signature of a male family member or acquaintance to carry out any financial transactions. However, Ibsen makes these women the centerpiece of his play.

He shows how they make up for men’s inadequacies (such as pride, impulsiveness, and selfishness) through their tenderness, self-sacrifice, and their loyalty. Nora is everything that Torvald is not, and this represented a new element in modern drama. Not only was Ibsen bold enough to portray women very responsibly, but he did this in a courteous manner that makes Nora appear real.

At first, she seems like a dependent and weak individual, but as one learns about her life and her decisions, one soon realizes that she is a strong and selfless woman. Given that this was such a new stance, it is no wonder theatre enthusiasts called Ibsen a revolutionary author (Fisher and Silber, 40).

Self-Duty Concept as a Result of Modernism in the Play

Another way in which the theme advances modernism in A Doll’s House is through the concept of self duty. During Ibsen’s time, individuals were expected to stay loyal to their leaders and their society in general. Many held others’ opinions about themselves more important than their perspectives.

However, Ibsen was a realist and wanted to show how this approach was unfair. Nora, the main character, had been putting the needs and opinions of others before herself. The overall result of this was that she led an unfulfilled life. Furthermore, men kept using that selflessness to their advantage, and this only led to her unhappiness.

By exonerating her needs over and above everyone else’s, Nora was able to discover a new path for herself through this decision. Ibsen was, therefore, able to portray realist and hence, modernist thought through this theme of self-enhancement.

Character is an important stylistic device used to illustrate modernist thought. At the time when A Doll’s House was written, many other plays would portray the central character as this dominant male figure that appeared to have all the solutions to the problems in the play.

However, Ibsen breaks from this tradition and portrays what should have been an older and socially responsible man, Dr. Rank, as someone who lacks a moral sense. He openly lets the wife of a close friend know that he has feelings for her. Furthermore, he is ailing from a disease that is often associated with promiscuity, although he got it from his father (Tornqvist, 193).

This author does not portray his characters in a typical manner. In fact, one would be mistaken to dismiss Nora off as nothing more than a dependent and shallow person, but as one continues reading through, one soon realizes that she is a very deep person.

Torvald was also another complex character in the play. At some point, he seems caring because he chooses to stay at home and teach Nora how to dance, but as the story progresses, it becomes clear that he was self-centered as well. There is a vast range of emotions portrayed through the characters, thus illustrating that they were indeed real.

Ibsen’s Attitude to Romanticism in A Dolls’ House

No human being lacks faults, and the problem with romantic writings was that a vast number of them tried to pretend that humans are faultless. Trying to do this was unrealistic and unfair. Ibsen did not want to glorify any one of them, an aspect that was typical of the realist school of thought.

Marxism, as a form of modernism, can also be seen in the play through the main character of the play. Prior to this production, aristocrats often carried the day.

They controlled wealth and were entitled to several privileges. This usually meant that the middle and lower classes would pay the price for these privileges. In other words, capitalism favored the rich and oppressed the poor. The latter’s stories were rarely heard, especially in literature. Thus, A Doll’s House as a modern play had critical impact on dramaturgy of that time.

However, Ibsen can throw in a new perspective here when he decides not to tell the story of yet another elite. He reveals the struggles of a middle-class woman, Nora, and also talks about the struggles of another female, Mrs. Linde. Linde came from a low-income family that lacked the basics of life. She chose to marry someone she did not love just so that she could overcome the problems of her class.

Ibsen succeeded in initiating a discussion concerning the evils of capitalism. This peculiar hero, Nora, goes through several problems that stem from her economic background. As such, one can assert that the play questions how society is run and what role money plays in it (Krutch, 21). It exposes the evils of capitalism and therefore propagates classic Marxist thought or modernism in its real colors.

The research paper on A Doll’s House play analyzes the main modernism themes of the writing that created a precedent for other drama plays. Ibsen supported realism theories and used his realistic views in his works. Ibsen’s use of the theme is quite outstanding in exposing class struggles and the problems of romanticism. To this end, he is initiating a discussion on Marxism. He uses the plot to advance realist thought through the ambiguous and dramatic ending of the story.

The character also plays an essential role because she defies the traditional depictions of males and females in his story. His choice of a female as a central character testifies to this modernist aspect. Also, his representation of complex individuals makes his work realistic. In the end, Ibsen set the stage for a new and revolutionary way of writing plays and looking at life in society.

Works Cited

Ibsen, Henrik. A Doll’s house. Translated by William Archer. London: Fisher Unwin, 1889.

Krutch, Joseph. Modernism in drama. Ithaca: Cornell university, 1953.

Fisher, Jerilyn & Silber, Ellen. Women in literature. Westport: Greenwood, 2002.

McFarlane, James. Cambridge companion to Ibsen. Cambridge: CUP, 1994.

Tornqvist, Egil. Ibsen, a doll’s house. Cambridge: CUP, 1995.

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IvyPanda. (2023, October 29). A Doll’s House Modernism Theme.

"A Doll’s House Modernism Theme." IvyPanda , 29 Oct. 2023,

IvyPanda . (2023) 'A Doll’s House Modernism Theme'. 29 October.

IvyPanda . 2023. "A Doll’s House Modernism Theme." October 29, 2023.

1. IvyPanda . "A Doll’s House Modernism Theme." October 29, 2023.


IvyPanda . "A Doll’s House Modernism Theme." October 29, 2023.

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A Critical Analysis on Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House according to Feminist Point of View

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This research paper attempts to give a feminist analysis of Henrik Ibsen's A Doll's House based on the Anglo-American approach to feminist literary theory. It will first explain the feminist literary theory as a term as well as a practice and its function in literary criticism, followed by an explanation of the Anglo-American approach and some of its prominent writers. The paper will also explore how and to what degree (if at all) Henrik Ibsen, who is mostly famous for his realist dramas but has also been credited for his feminist characters and content, is involved with the women's cause by referring to some of his speeches, letters and acquaintances. It will then attempt a feminist analysis of the play based on the Anglo-American approach and Showalter's feminist critique, using quotes from and references to the three acts of the play as a justification to show how Henrik Ibsen challenged the stereotypi-cal representation of women in literature with his female characters .

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Henrik Ibsen, an eminent 19 th-century Norwegian playwright produced a number of influential and realistic plays describing the true scenario of the society of that time. A number of his plays including A Doll's House, Hedda Gabler, Ghost, The Pillars of Society, An Enemy of The People have depicted the issues related to marriage, conjugal life, patriarchy, feminism, social injustice, women's suppressed condition and their struggle for independence. The present study focused on unfolding the scenario of women's struggle represented in A Doll's House. The researcher chose content analysis, a kind of qualitative research method as the avenue of the current study. The study explored that after being understood the subordinate condition, women started struggling and fighting against the socalled rules of patriarchal society. The struggle of Nora starting with a subconscious mind and ending with a very clear conscious step clearly pictured the struggle of the women folk of that time. A number of notable issues supports Nora's struggle to gain individual identity resulting in borrowing money without the consent of Torvald, arranging the whole trip for her husband's treatment, bold dealing with Krogstad and finally leaving husband and family by the slamming of the door towards exploring herself where there are a number of new open doors with numerous opportunity and freedom.



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research paper on a doll's house

A Doll's House

Henrik ibsen, ask litcharts ai: the answer to your questions.

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on Henrik Ibsen's A Doll's House . Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

A Doll's House: Introduction

A doll's house: plot summary, a doll's house: detailed summary & analysis, a doll's house: themes, a doll's house: quotes, a doll's house: characters, a doll's house: symbols, a doll's house: theme wheel, brief biography of henrik ibsen.

A Doll's House PDF

Historical Context of A Doll's House

Other books related to a doll's house.

  • Full Title: A Doll’s House (Norwegian: Ett dukkehjem )
  • When Written: 1879
  • Where Written: Dresden, Germany
  • When Published: Published and first performed in December 1879
  • Literary Period: Realism; modernism
  • Genre: Realist modern prose drama
  • Setting: A town or city in Norway
  • Climax: When Torvald discovers the letter from Krogstad revealing Nora’s secret
  • Antagonist: At first Krogstad, then Torvald

Extra Credit for A Doll's House

A True Story: A Doll’s House is based on the life of Ibsen’s family friend Laura Kieler, whose actions inspired the story of Nora’s secret debt. In reality, however, Kieler did not forge a signature, and when her husband, Victor, discovered her secret, he divorced her and forced her to be committed to an insane asylum. Ibsen, appalled by Kieler’s committal, wrote A Doll’s House in part as a way of defending her. After two years in the asylum Kieler returned to live with her husband and children and became a famous author in Denmark.

Scandalous: When it was first performed and for many years afterwards, A Doll’s House caused quite the scandal for its criticism of 19th-century marriage customs and portrayal of a woman abandoning her family in order to gain a sense of self. Pressured by several theatres and even the actress who was supposed to play Nora in a German production of the play, Ibsen wrote an alternative ending, in which Nora, upon seeing her children, changes her mind and stays with Torvald. He later regretted doing this, calling the adapted ending “a barbaric outrage.”

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The Economics of Administration Action on Student   Debt

Higher education financing allows many Americans from lower- and middle-income backgrounds to invest in education. However, over the past 30 years, college tuition prices have increased faster than median incomes, leaving many Americans with large amounts of student debt that they struggle or are unable to, pay off. 

Recognizing the burden of this debt, the Biden-Harris Administration has pursued two key strategies for debt reduction and cancellation. The first, student debt relief (SDR), aims to address the ill effects of flaws in the student debt system for borrowers. The second, the SAVE plan, reforms the federal student loan system, improving student loan affordability for future students and providing current graduates with breathing room during the beginning of a new career.

This issue brief examines the factors that precipitated the current student debt landscape, and details how both SDR and SAVE will enhance the economic status of millions of Americans with student debt: enabling them to allocate more funds towards basic necessities, take career risks, start businesses, and purchase homes. This brief highlights credible research, underscoring how the Administration’s student debt relief could boost consumption in the short-term by billions of dollars and could have important impacts on borrower mental health, financial security, and outcomes such as homeownership and entrepreneurship. This brief also details how the SAVE plan makes repaying college costs more affordable for current borrowers and future generations. CEA simulations show that, under SAVE, an average borrower with a bachelor’s degree could save $20,000 in loan payments, while a borrower with an associate degree could see nearly 90 percent savings compared to the standard loan repayment plan. These changes enable more people to pursue education and contribute to the broader economy.

Why do borrowers need relief?

Over the last 20 years especially, the sticker price of college has risen significantly. Despite recent minor declines, sticker prices at public universities (which over 70% of undergraduate students in the United States attend) are 56% higher today than two decades ago. [1] While there are many reasons for this trend, the most rapid increases in tuition often occur during economic downturns as tuitions grow to fill the budgetary holes that are left when states cut their support to public colleges ( Webber, 2017 ; Deming and Walters 2018 ). This is especially problematic given many people choose to return to school during economic downturns ( Betts and MacFarland 1995 ; Hillman and Orians 2013 ). Unfortunately, contracting state appropriations have played a role in shifting the responsibility of financing away from public subsidies and toward students and families ( Turner and Barr, 2013 ; Bound et al., 2019 )–leading many students to take on more debt.

At the same time that college sticker prices have risen, the wage premium (the earnings difference between college goers and high school graduates) has not seen analogous growth. While obtaining a college degree remains a reliable entry point to the middle class, the relative earning gains for degree holders began to stagnate in the early 2000s after increasing for several decades. As shown in Figure 1b, since 2000, the wage premium for both bachelor’s degree holders and those with “some college” education (which includes anyone who enrolled in college but didn’t earn a BA) saw declines around the 2001-02 and 2008-10 recessions and a slow, inconsistent recovery thereafter. The decline is particularly notable for students who didn’t complete a four-year degree, a group that includes two-year college enrollees who have among the highest student loan default rates. [2]

Traditional economic theory tells us that individuals choose to invest in post-secondary education based on the expected costs and wage returns associated with the investment. But rapid and unforeseeable rises in prices and declines in college wage premia have contributed to decades of “unlucky” college-entry cohorts affected by a form of recessionary scarring . For example, a student who entered college in 2006 would have expected a sticker price of roughly $8,800 per year for a four-year college, but actually faced tuition of over $10,000 in their final year of college, a roughly 15% difference. This same student, upon graduation if they worked full time, would have earned about $3,500 less, on average, than what they would have expected upon entering. This example illustrates that many borrowers made sound borrowing decisions with available information, but as a result of these trends ended up with more debt than they could afford to pay off. [3] Consistent with this notion, the default rate for “unlucky” college entry cohorts of the 2000s is much higher than those of other cohorts, with undergraduate default rates doubling between 2000 and 2010: in 2017, 21 percent of undergraduate loan holders and 6 percent of graduate loan holders defaulted within 3 years ( CBO, 2020 ).

It is important to note that sticker prices for public institutions have declined 7 percent since 2021, the same period over which college wage premiums have been rising. Declining tuition, for the first time in decades, coincided with increased investment in higher education through pandemic-era legislation such as the American Rescue Plan, which allocated $40 billion in 2021 to support institutes of higher education and their students. Despite these improvements, as well as significant advances in the return on college investments over the last three years, many current borrowers still need some relief. The Administration has taken significant action to protect future cohorts from similar risks.

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How the Administration is providing relief

Retrospective: Student Debt Relief Helps Existing Borrowers

In a commitment to help those who are overburdened with debt, the Administration has already approved Federal student debt cancellation for nearly 4 million Americans through various actions. Today , the Administration announced details of proposed rules that, if finalized as proposed, would provide relief to over 30 million borrowers when taken together with actions to date.

Importantly, much of this debt forgiveness comes from correcting program administration and improving regulations related to laws that were on the books before this Administration took office. This debt relief has affected borrowers from all walks of life, including nearly 900,000 Americans who have dedicated their lives to public service (such as teachers, social workers, nurses, firefighters, police officers, and others), borrowers who were misled and cheated by their institutions, and borrowers who are facing total or permanent disability, including many veterans. By relieving these borrowers of long-held, and in some cases very large burdens of debt, relief can have significant meaning and impact for borrowers, families, and their communities.

By reducing debtors’ liabilities, debt relief raises net worth (assets, including income less liabilities). Debt relief can also ease the financial burden of making payments—leading to greater disposable income for borrowers and their families, which enhances living standards and could positively influence decisions about employment, home buying, and mobility. While there are few direct estimates of the effect of debt cancelation in the literature, estimates based on the relationship between wealth and consumption suggest that this forgiveness could increase consumption by several billions of dollars each year in the next five to ten years.

Additionally, a recent study suggests that student debt cancellation can lead to increased earnings (due to greater geographic and career mobility), improved credit scores, and lower delinquency rates on other debts ( Di Maggio, Kalda, and Yao, 2019 ). This can facilitate access to capital for starting a business or buying a car or home. As home mortgages often require a certain debt-to-income ratio and depend heavily on credit scores, student debt cancellation could potentially increase home ownership. Indeed, based on the mechanical relationship between housing industry affordability standards and debt-to-income ratios, industry sources have suggested that those without student debt could afford to take out substantially larger mortgages ( Zillow, 2018 ). Other research also indicates a negative correlation between student loan debt and homeownership ( Mezza et al., 2020 ).

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It is important to note that, while these pecuniary benefits are important, the benefits associated with debt relief are not merely financial. Experimental evidence has linked holding debt to heightened levels of stress and anxiety ( Drentea and Reynolds, 2012 ), worse self-reported physical health ( Sweet et al., 2013 ), and reduced cognitive capacity ( Robb et al., 2012 ; Ong et al., 2019 ). Studies also show that holding student debt can be a barrier to positive life cycle outcomes such as entrepreneurship ( Krishnan and Wang, 2019 ), and marriage ( Gicheva, 2016 ; Sieg and Wang, 2018 ). Student debt relief has the potential to improve these key outcomes for millions of borrowers.

Prospective: The SAVE Plan Helps Prevent Future Challenges

To address unaffordable education financing moving forward, the Administration has also introduced the Saving on a Valuable Education (SAVE) loan repayment program. The SAVE plan prospectively helps student borrowers by ensuring that once they graduate, they never have to pay more than they can afford towards their student loan debt. Importantly, the SAVE plan protects borrowers from being “unlucky” by ensuring that high tuition or low earnings do not result in loan payments that borrowers can’t afford. The CEA has detailed the real benefits of SAVE for borrowers in issue briefs and blogs , underscoring that SAVE is the most affordable student loan repayment program in U.S. history. By substantially reducing monthly payment amounts compared to previous income driven repayment (IDR) plans and reducing time to forgiveness to as little as 10 years for people who borrowed smaller amounts, the SAVE plan can mean tens of thousands of dollars in real savings for borrowers over the course of repayment.

Figure 2 gives the example of two representative borrowers. Take the first, a 4-year college graduate who has $31,000 in debt and earns about $40,500 per year. Under a standard repayment plan, this borrower would pay roughly $330 dollars each month for 10 years. Under SAVE, this borrower would pay about $50 per month for the first ten years, and on average about $130 per month for the next 10 years. Over a 20-year period, this borrower would make roughly $17,500 less in payments, not accounting for inflation over that period. This represents a 56 percent reduction in total payments compared to the standard repayment plan and includes considerable loan forgiveness. Similarly, the representative 2-year college graduate has $10,000 in debt and earns about $32,000 per year. Under a standard plan, this borrower would pay $110 dollars each month for 10 years. Under SAVE, this borrower would pay $0 per month for the first two years, and under $20 per month for the next eight years before their debt is forgiven at year 10. Overall, this borrower would be responsible for roughly $11,700 less in lifetime payments, not accounting for inflation. This borrower sees nearly 90 percent savings compared to the standard plan and receives considerable loan forgiveness.

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SAVE can also have benefits beyond the individual borrower. More money in borrowers’ pockets due to lower payment obligations under SAVE could boost consumption and give borrowers breathing room to make payments on other debt. This consumption effect is bolstered by a large literature documenting the benefits of easing liquidity constraints (see, for example, Aydin, 2022 ; Parker et al., 2022 ). Additionally, by shortening time to forgiveness for undergraduate borrowers, SAVE can lead to positive debt-relief outcomes (as discussed above) for many more borrowers.

Another key aspect of income-driven repayment plans like SAVE is that they protect borrowers from having to make large payments when incomes are low. Specifically, the required payments are not based on the initial loan balance, but on one’s income and household size so that those cohorts who need to borrow more to pay for college do not make larger payments unless they make more income. SAVE also protects more of a borrower’s income as discretionary and, when the full plan is implemented in Summer 2024, will limit monthly payments on undergraduate loans to 5 percent of discretionary income. In fact, for single borrowers who make less than $33,000 per year, the required monthly payments will be zero dollars. From a finance perspective, the SAVE plan provides a form of insurance against tuition spikes and economic downturns–taking some of the risk out of investing in one’s education while also bringing costs down.   

A common concern, and one that could mute these benefits, is that increases in the generosity of education financing may encourage institutions to raise tuition and fees in response, a phenomenon commonly referred to as the Bennett Hypothesis (for an excellent overview of research, see Dynarski et al., 2022 ). Theoretically, in a market when sellers are maximizing profits, any policy that increases demand will also increase prices. However, this is less likely to impact the over 70% of U.S. undergraduates who attend public colleges, which are not profit-driven and often have statutorily set tuition. Consistent with this notion, the evidence in support of the Bennett Hypothesis primarily comes from for-profit colleges, which are highly reliant on students who receive federal financial aid ( Cellini and Goldin, 2014 ; Baird et al, 2022 ). [4] Importantly, although the for-profit sector enrolls some of the country’s most vulnerable students, enrollment in the sector in 2021 accounted for only 5 percent of total undergraduate enrollment, suggesting that aggregate tuition increases in response to changes in education financing may be modest. Furthermore, the Biden-Harris Administration has taken action to crack down on for-profit colleges that take advantage of, or mislead, their students. And, recent regulations, such as the Gainful Employment ( GE ) rule, add safeguards against unaffordable debt regardless of more generous education financing. 

Although the SAVE plan stands to benefit borrowers of all backgrounds, the plan has important racial and socioeconomic equity implications because it is particularly beneficial for those borrowers with the lowest incomes. Centuries of inequities have led to Black, Hispanic, and Native households being more likely than their White peers to fall in the low end of the income distribution. This means that, mechanically, the SAVE plan’s benefits could accrue disproportionately to these groups. Indeed, using completion data from recent years, an Urban Institute analysis estimates that 59 percent of credentials earned by Black students and 53 percent of credentials earned by Hispanic students are likely to be eligible for some amount of loan forgiveness under SAVE, compared to 42 percent of credentials earned by White students ( Delisle and Cohn, 2023 ). Finally, the interest subsidy described in an August 2023 CEA blog , prevents ballooning balances when a borrower cannot cover their entire monthly interest payment, a phenomenon that has historically led to many borrowers in general, and Black borrowers in particular, to see loan balances that are higher than their original loan amount, even several years out from graduating with a bachelor’s degree ( NCES, 2023 ).

Broader economic impacts

The benefits associated with SDR and SAVE for millions of Americans are considerable. In the short run, under both SDR and SAVE, those who receive relief may be able to spend more in their communities and contribute to their local economies. Summing the likely consumption effects of the Administration’s student debt relief and SAVE programs results in billions of dollars in additional consumption annually. Despite the modest effect on the macroeconomy as a whole (note that the U.S. economy is roughly $28 trillion with a population of roughly 320 million), these consumption effects represent incredibly meaningful impacts on individual borrowers’ financial security and the economic wellbeing of their communities.

SAVE, because it brings down the cost of taking out loans to go to college, has the potential to lead to longer-term economic growth if it leads to greater educational attainment. This increased attainment can occur both through improved retention and completion of post-secondary education, and also the movement of students into college who would not have otherwise enrolled. There is a long macroeconomics literature linking educational attainment in a nation to GDP growth (see, for example, Lucas, 1988 ; Hanushek and Woesmann, 2008 ). While identifying the causal effect of schooling on GDP is challenging, researchers, using a variety of approaches, find that a one-year increase in average education (for the entire working population) would increase the real GDP level by between 5 and 12 percent ( Barro and Lee, 2013 ; Soto, 2002 ) —a result that is in line with the micro-founded relationship between years of education and earnings ( Lovenheim and Smith, 2022 ).

To put this relationship in perspective and highlight the growth potential of increasing educational attainment, the CEA simulated the hypothetical effect on GDP of increasing the college-going rate by 1, 3, and 5 percentage points, respectively. This range represents the kinds of changes in college going that have been observed over several years: the college enrollment rate for 18- to 24-year-olds declined 4 percentage points between 2011 and 2021 after increasing by 6 percentage points between 2000 and 2011 ( NCES 2023 ). CEA simulations show that by 2055, a policy that increased the college going rate by 1, 3, and 5 percentage points could increase the level of GDP in 2055 (thirty years from now) by 0.2, 0.6, and 1 percent respectively. This represents hundreds of billions of dollars of additional economic activity in the long run.

While increased growth is an exciting possibility, it would only occur insofar as SAVE leads to increased educational attainment, which is uncertain. The academic literature has found that student loans can promote academic performance ( Barr, et. al. 2021 ), and increase educational attainment by increasing transfers from 2-year to 4-year colleges and increasing college completion among enrollees ( Marx and Turner, 2019 ). At the same time, increases in college-going due to SAVE are by no means guaranteed. While, historically, policies that reduce the cost of college through direct means—such as providing students with generous grant aid, or reducing tuition—have succeeded at raising college enrollment levels ( Dynarski, 2003 ; Turner, 2011 ), a pair of recent studies show that prospective students may only respond to cost changes when they are salient, i.e., they are framed and marketed in the right way ( Dynarski et al., 2021 ), and relatively certain ( Burland et al., 2022 ). However, evidence suggests that there is demand for plans like SAVE ( Balakrishnan et al., 2024 ), particularly as SAVE can provide sizable benefits to borrowers in terms of reducing their long-term debt burden and keep monthly payments low (dependent on a borrower’s income) after they finish school.

This highlights the importance of communicating the benefits of the SAVE program to prospective students who otherwise would not enroll in college due to cost concerns, including potential barriers to paying off student loans in the future. Doing so could lead to meaningful increases in college enrollment, and the resulting improvements in productive capacity could increase the size of the U.S. economy for years to come.

Concluding remarks

The Biden-Harris Administration has taken bold action to address a student debt problem that has been decades in the making. This student debt cancellation will provide well-deserved relief for borrowers who have paid their fair share, many of whom had the proverbial rug pulled out from under them with concurrent rapidly rising tuition and declining returns to a college degree. The relief has and will improve economic health and wellbeing of those who have devoted years of their life to public service, those who were defrauded or misled by their institutions, and those who have been doing all they can to make payments, but have still seen their loan balances grow. Looking to future generations, the Administration implemented the SAVE plan to protect borrowers against tuition spikes and poorer than expected labor market outcomes that often plague students graduating into a period of economic downturn ( Rothstein, 2021 ; Schwandt and von Wachter, 2023 ).

Both student debt relief and SAVE will enhance the economic status of millions of Americans with student debt: enable them to allocate more funds towards basic necessities, take career risks, start businesses, and purchase homes with the understanding that they will never have to pay more than they can afford towards their student loans. Moreover, the SAVE plan makes repayment more affordable for future generations, which helps borrowers manage monthly payments, but also enables more people from all walks of life to explore their full potential and pursue higher education, enhancing the potential of the U.S. workforce and the economy more broadly. 

[1] In 2021, 51% of total undergraduates attended public 4-year universities and 21% attended public 2-years in 2021.

[2] The BA group excludes those with a graduate degree, or any education beyond a bachelor’s degree.

[3] Recent research shows that, despite a positive return on investment (ROI) for many, including the average student, the distribution of ROI has widened over the last several decades such that the likelihood of negative ROI is higher than it has historically been, particularly so for underrepresented minority students ( Webber 2022 ).

[4] There is also some evidence in support of the Bennett Hypothesis at the graduate level ( Black et al. 2023 ).

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