Biden has forgiven nearly $20 billion in student loan debt. Here’s who gets it

BY Sydney LakeApril 04, 2022, 1:24 PM
U.S. President Joe Biden speaks on the March jobs report in the State Dining Room of the White House in Washington, D.C., U.S., as seen in April 2022. (Photographer: Al Drago—Bloomberg/Getty Images)

Federal student loan debt today totals more than $1.7 trillion, which is shared among 45 million borrowers. But ever since President Joe Biden took office, he’s announced several rounds of student debt cancellations for targeted groups of borrowers that now amounts to about $16 billion.

While Biden campaigned on canceling up to $10,000 in debt per borrower, the forgiveness he’s approved accounts for just about 1% of all federal student loan debt. Federal student loan borrowers hold an average of about $36,510 in debt, according to the Education Data Initiative, and some top Democratic lawmakers continue to push Biden to cancel up to $50,000 in debt per borrower.

“Student debt makes it harder to achieve the American dream—the sacred promise that if you work hard, if you play by the rules, that one day you’re going to make it here in America,” Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said during an event in October 2021. “When people have to pay student debt, they sometimes have to put off buying a home, buying a car, getting married, or even going into the profession they wish to go into.”

There’s still more to go with respect to canceling student loan debt, but the forgiveness announced during Biden’s tenure has helped about 700,000 borrowers so far. Biden is also the president who has canceled the most student loan debt—and he’s been in office only for a little more than a year. Fortune has summarized the rounds of forgiveness announced thus far. 

Defrauded borrowers

Borrowers who have been deceived by their academic institutions can submit borrower defense claims through the Education Department. In March 2021, the department announced it would streamline the process to receive debt cancellation. 

Through several rounds of forgiveness, defrauded borrowers have received billions of dollars in debt relief. The first round of forgiveness of this kind—totaling about $1 billion—went to about 72,000 borrowers who attended Corinthian Colleges, ITT Technical Institute, and American Career Institute. 

Last summer, the Education Department announced further rounds to help borrowers who attended Westwood College, Marinello Schools of Beauty, and the Court Reporting Institute. These former students learned they would have their loans discharged, which totaled $55.6 million. Then, in August 2021, about 115,000 borrowers who attended ITT Tech but never graduated received a collective $1.1 billion in debt relief. Borrowers started receiving automatic discharges for their student loans in September 2021.

This February, Biden announced another round of forgiveness for defrauded borrowers who attended DeVry University, Westwood College, Corinthian Colleges, Marinello Schools of Beauty, the nursing program at ITT Technical Institute, and the criminal justice programs at Minnesota School of Business/Globe University. That round totaled $415 million and helped 16,000 borrowers, with about 20% of that round of forgiveness going to borrowers who attended DeVry.

While these rounds of forgiveness have helped many borrowers who attended deceptive schools, there are still more than 260,000 unresolved borrower defense applications, according to the Project on Predatory Student Lending at Harvard Law School.

“The [Education] Department has proven that it is capable of processing borrower defense claims and canceling debts when students are cheated by their schools, but this arbitrary, piecemeal approach only compounds the confusion and harm experienced by borrowers,” Eileen Connor, director of the Project on Predatory Student Lending, said in a statement.

Disabled borrowers

The Education Department in August 2021 announced a massive round of debt cancellation for borrowers with a “total and permanent” disability (TPD). The $5.8 billion in forgiveness was the largest dollar amount during Biden’s tenure and, when it was first announced, went to 323,000 borrowers. 

As of January, forgiveness for borrowers with a TPD had grown to $7 billion for more than 400,000 people due to changes in the verification process. Instead of requiring applicants to identify as having a TPD through the Department of Veterans Affairs, the Social Security Administration identifies borrowers through a data match. The SSA evaluates whether a borrower can still work.

Borrowers registered as having a TPD have their loans automatically discharged. 

“This change reduces red tape with the aim of making processes as simple as possible for borrowers who need support,” Education Secretary Miguel Cardona said in an August 2021 statement.

Public service workers

In 2007, Congress established the Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF) program to provide debt relief for public servants who had made 10 years’ worth of payments, or 120 qualifying monthly student loan payments. The program was pretty unsuccessful at helping public servants, though; 98% of borrowers who had applied for forgiveness were denied by the program because of several hurdles with the approval process.

The Education Department in October 2021 announced changes to the program that now make it easier to qualify for forgiveness. More than 100,000 borrowers have had their loans forgiven, which totals about $6 billion. 

One of the main reasons the program largely failed is because it didn’t count payments on certain types of loans. A limited waiver introduced in October 2021 will allow borrowers to count payments on loans from the Federal Family Education Loan (FFEL) program or the Perkins Loan program as long as you submit a PSLF form by Oct. 31, 2022.

“Our new approach will add months or years of service credit for huge numbers of student loan borrowers by counting certain payments that had been ineligible,” Federal Student Aid chief operating officer Richard Cordray wrote in a Nov. 8, 2021, letter to PSLF borrowers. “In some cases, borrowers will earn full loan forgiveness based on the changes.”

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