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Biden’s first 100 days: Student loan debt won’t go anywhere

December 24, 2020, 2:00 PM UTC

As college students across the country pivot between online and in-person classrooms, reimagining and navigating what the higher education landscape looks like under the weight of a pandemic that has killed over 320,000 Americans and infected 18 million more, one tradition remains: hefty tuition rates and ever-increasing student loan debt. 

This year, the United States broke records, surpassing $1.7 trillion in student debt for the first time, a 4% increase year over year. In the past decade, student loan debt has increased by about 102%, according to data from the Federal Reserve

The previous COVID-19 stimulus bill temporarily instated an interest-free payment pause for federal student loan borrowers, but the extension package passed Monday night offers no such relief, meaning that starting next month more than 43 million American borrowers will have to begin paying their loans, this time with 10 million fewer jobs than before the pandemic began in earnest this March. Before the financial constraints brought on by COVID-19, just three in 10 young college graduates with student loans (32%) say they are living comfortably. That’s compared with 51% of college graduates of a similar age without outstanding loans. 

But Democratic lawmakers and advocacy organizations see a way out through President-elect Joe Biden. More than 200 organizations including the American Federation of Teachers and the NAACP signed an open letter to Biden last month asking him to take action on his first day in office to use his executive authority to cancel all student debt. Progressive lawmakers have asked him to relieve $50,000 in debt per borrower on his first day. 

Biden himself has floated a more conservative plan; during his campaign he said he’d like to see $10,000 in federal student debt per borrower canceled through action by the legislative branch. Student borrowers are in “real trouble,” Biden said to press in November. “They’re having to make choices between paying their student loans and paying their rent, those kinds of decisions.” But if Republicans continue to hold the Senate, it’s unlikely that Democrats would be able to pass any legislation at all, leaving students where they were. 

The Education Department has been the nation’s largest lender and consumer bank for the past 10 years; it currently owns nearly $1.5 trillion in student loan debt. Democratic lawmakers argue that if some of that debt were forgiven, it would stimulate homebuying and spending and could also help put cash back into the pockets of those dealing with the repercussions of the COVID-19 economy.  

There’s also uncertainty over whether Biden could actually pass any debt relief through an executive order (EO). If he did he would certainly face legal challenges. Some argue that he has the authority to do so under the 1965 Higher Education Act, which created the current federal student loan program. The law allows Biden’s education secretary to “compromise, waive, or release” any loans. Some legal scholars say this means the President can issue an EO, while others argue that it doesn’t. 

During a recent Instagram Live chat, progressive congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez said that canceling student debt was “not a pipe dream at all” and that “most importantly…it can be done by executive order, which means that Biden would not need Mitch McConnell or the Republican Senate to forgive people’s student loans. The key is that we need to push him.”

Still, it appears that Biden is not likely to wade into legally challenging legislation during his first day in office, and will probably leave it up to Congress to battle out any student loan debt forgiveness during his first 100 days.