Can Biden forgive student loans through an executive order?

BY Lance LambertSeptember 14, 2021, 10:00 AM
President Joe Biden delivers remarks from the State Dining Room of the White House on Sept. 9, 2021, in Washington, D.C.
Kent Nishimura—Los Angeles Times/Getty Images

In March, White House Chief of Staff Ron Klain announced the U.S. Department of Education would investigate if the executive branch has the legal authority to wipe out massive amounts of student loan debt without an act of Congress. At the time, he said, the results of that study would be public “in the next few weeks.”

But six months later, the Department of Education has yet to drop such a memo.

“At this point, it’s technically still unclear whether the President has the authority to simply do broad forgiveness with the stroke of a pen,” Carlo Salerno, vice president for research at CampusLogic and a longtime higher education economist, tells Fortune. “He asked the Education Department six months ago now for legal clarification. I think most experts agree that if he did have the authority, it would’ve already happened. Hundreds of billions of dollars in debt relief is not something you keep tucked away for months while an economic crisis unfolds from a still-happening global pandemic.”

While the Biden camp hasn’t weighed in on the legality of such an order, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has given her thoughts. In July, she told reporters the White House doesn’t have the power to wipe out borrowers’ student loans through an executive order. Instead, she said, that would need to be an act passed through Congress.

“The President can’t do it…That’s not even a discussion,” Pelosi said.

The courts haven’t ruled either way, because, well, a sitting President has never attempted it, and thus it hasn’t been tested in the judicial system. That hasn’t stopped progressive lawmakers, including Rep. Jamaal Bowman (D-N.Y.), from pushing Biden to go through with debt cancellation.

But if Biden were going to attempt debt forgiveness—which would certainly draw a legal challenge—he would likely have already done so, Robert Kelchen, a higher education professor at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, tells Fortune.

“I don’t see the Biden administration forgiving loans through executive action this year, as the most politically opportune time to do this was right after taking office,” Kelchen says.

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