One of President Biden’s most important campaign promises during his 2020 campaign was a daring student debt forgiveness — at least at some form of it. It’s now June 2021 and, so far, the president has yet to deliver on that promise. But that’s not out of lack of trying. Canceling student debt is a complex affair due to murky legal matters. Will Biden stay true to his word? Some experts believe so.
“There is certainly a chance,” Andre M. Perry, a senior fellow with the Brookings Metropolitan Policy Program, told CNBC.
“Student loan forgiveness wasn’t included in the president’s budget request or in the infrastructure legislation,” higher education expert Mark Kantrowitz added for CNBC. “Some people are interpreting that as the president moving away from loan forgiveness. I don’t see it that way.”
Nearly 45 million Americans have student loan debt
Student loans in the United States have grown dramatically in the past 15 years, with total debt reaching $1.6 trillion in 2019 — that’s equivalent to 7.5% of the country’s GDP. Around 45 million Americans are currently still making payments on their student debt.
Unlike other forms of school-related financial aid like grants or scholarships, loans have to be paid back. The weight is heaviest on minorities such as Black and Latin communities. Women also share a disproportionately high toll. The toll will likely be magnified by the disproportionate ill effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on the economic security of people of color and women.
While Americans can of course opt not to take out student debt, the alternative isn’t more appealing. Decades ago, going into the workforce with just a high school education could earn you a living wage. However, today, Bachelor’s degree holders are half as likely to be unemployed as their peers who only have a high school degree and they make $1 million in additional earnings on average over their lifetime.
On an annual basis, bachelor’s degree holders earn about $32,000 more than those whose highest degree is a high school diploma — and the wage gap between college graduates and those with less education is widening with every year. In 2019, the median income for recent graduates was about $44,000 a year for bachelor’s degree holders aged 22–27, while high school graduates of the same age bracket had median earnings of $30,000 a year.
A petition signed by over 415 organizations on April 13, 2021, called on President Biden and Vice President Harris to cancel federal student debt via executive order. Most Americans support student debt cancellation.
But although the public support for student debt cancellation is overwhelming, questions remain whether this is feasible from a legal standpoint.
Is student loan debt cancellation legal in the first place?
More than three months ago, the Biden administration asked the U.S. Department of Education to conduct a review of the question of whether the administration can enact wide-scale student loan cancellation without further authorization from Congress. Previously, the Trump administration concluded that the president does not have the legal authority to unilaterally enact such a wide-scale student loan forgiveness but, perhaps, this time the Biden administration may reach a different conclusion. If Biden decides to go forward with his student debt cancellation, the decision will most likely be challenged in court. Ultimately, it is here where it will be decided whether or not the president of the United States truly has the ability to enact such policies.
Even if Biden decides to go forward, it’s unlikely that all student debt will be wiped out. The likeliest course of action is a targeted debt forgiveness program. For instance, the administration may decide to cancel all debt up to $50,000, which would amount to nearly 36 million American borrowers having their student loan debt completely canceled.
The Biden administration has already canceled $2.3 billion of student loan debt. First, he canceled student loans for 72,000 borrowers who attended colleges that used deceptive or predatory practices — particularly now-defunct for-profit colleges like ITT Technical Institute and Corinthian Colleges. Then, he canceled another $1 billion for 41,000 borrowers with total and permanent disability.
What’s certain is that those with a private student loan shouldn’t expect any student loan cancellation. Biden’s campaign promise to cancel student loan debt, which is supported in Congress by the likes of Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY), only applies to federal student loans. For instance, Parent Loans, a type of loan for parents to fund education, are private student loans so they are unlikely to be included in any cancellation proposal. However, Parent PLUS Loans is owned by the federal government and may be eligible. Parent PLUS Loans debt amounts to around $100 billion.
What’s more, any student loan cancellation is expected to have an income cap. Under Warren and Schumer’s proposal, only student loan borrowers who earn less than $125,000/year would be eligible for student loan cancellation.
Student loan forgiveness in the United States is a complex and stuffy situation. There is still no word from the White House concerning its education department review. If it ever happens, debt cancellation won’t apply to all borrowers. What’s more, none of this means that Americans will be able to attend college for “free” in the future.
“The idea that you go to Penn and you’re paying a total of 70,000 bucks a year and the public should pay for that? I don’t agree,” Biden told the New York Times.
If the vast majority of student loans are canceled but Americans will still have to pay huge fees to earn a college degree, what will student financing look like in the future? No one knows yet. For now, student debt forgiveness is in limbo despite the overwhelming support in its favor.