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Is Biden stringing along student loan borrowers?

April 21, 2022, 2:00 PM UTC

While campaigning for president, Joe Biden said he would forgive $10,000 in student loan debt for every borrower. So far, he hasn’t carried through with his promise.

Instead, Biden’s administration has implemented multiple rounds of targeted student loan forgiveness to a relatively small group of borrowers and has extended a freeze on student loan bills. In total, Biden’s more limited intervention will wipe out nearly $20 billion in federal student loans.

That’s far more than any previous president. But it still fails to scratch the surface of the massive student debt crunch of more than $1.7 trillion held by about 45 million borrowers.

In other words, Biden has only forgiven around 1% of total federal student loan debt. That’s insignificant compared to the $50,000 in debt per borrower that some top Democratic lawmakers want Biden to cancel.

“With the flick of a pen, President Biden could cancel $50,000 in student loan debt and provide millions upon millions of student loan borrowers a new lease on life,” Senate Majority Leader Schumer said in October. There’s debate, however, on whether Biden has the executive power to cancel student loan debt en masse. Top Democrats including Schumer and Sen. Elizabeth Warren say Biden can institute forgiveness through executive order, but Biden and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi disagree. 

That lack of clarity from the White House raises the question: Is Biden stringing along federal student loan borrowers?

Where does Biden stand on the issue?

Biden has given mixed messages about broadly forgiving student loan debt. He campaigned on canceling at least some debt for every borrower, but his tune changed during his presidency.

In February 2021 during a CNN town hall, Biden said he objected to forgiving student loan debt for borrowers who went to “elite” private colleges including Harvard UniversityYale University, and the University of Pennsylvania. He still held this opinion in May 2021.

“The idea that you go to [the University of Pennsylvania] and you’re paying a total of 70,000 bucks a year and the public should pay for that? I don’t agree,” he told The New York Times

But as of April 6, student loan forgiveness isn’t completely off the table. On that day, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki was asked whether Biden had ruled out a broad executive-level cancellation of student debt. She said Biden hasn’t ruled out canceling debt through executive action, however he’d prefer Congress send him a bill wiping out $10,000 per borrower.

“We think Biden is stuck between a rock and a hard place politically,” Travis Hornsby, CEO and founder of Student Loan Planner, a loan advising firm, tells Fortune. “He probably can’t cancel student debt via executive order by himself, if only because such a major action would be sure to invite legal challenge, and would likely end up at a conservative majority Supreme Court.”

Forgiveness so far has been targeted at specific groups of borrowers including defrauded borrowers, borrowers with a major permanent disability, and public service workers. Meanwhile, Biden has also extended the freeze on federal student loan payments through August. Borrowers haven’t had to make payments on their loans since March 2020 or pay extra interest during that period. 

“I don’t think he’s stringing people along,” Betsy Mayotte, president of The Institute of Student Loan Advisors, tells Fortune. “If you go back to the language he used during the campaign, he’s always said he supports forgiveness, but Congress needs to do it.”

What about further freeze extensions?

Considering the current freeze will end on Aug. 31, ahead of the midterm elections on Nov. 6, it’s likely that Biden will extend it yet again. 

“I do think that President Biden’s latest extension of the payment freeze is stringing along borrowers,” Robert Kelchen, a professor of educational leadership and policy studies at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville, tells Fortune. “Previous extensions happened when the pandemic was far worse than it is now, and this extension came with vague talk about working to reform student loan payments. 

“This latest extension is driven more by politics than anything else, and I fully expect another extension past the midterm elections at this point,” he adds.

Mayotte has a different theory, though. She says if the administration doesn’t extend the freeze beyond the current Aug. 31 deadline, then there wouldn’t be enough time for 90-day delinquency data—a.k.a. the default rate on student loans—to be out before the midterms. Therefore, it would be difficult to make the argument that borrowers returning to repaying their loans after a more than two-year pause are defaulting in high numbers.

“Do you really want the optic when you’re trying to show that the economy is strong—that you’ve just extended the pause and people are still not being required to pay their student loans back because of the economy?” she questions. “It’s a catch 22.”

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