There’s something Biden isn’t telling student loan borrowers

BY Lance LambertOctober 29, 2021, 2:43 PM
President Joe Biden delivers remarks on his Build Back Better agenda from the East Room of the White House, as seen in October 2021. (Kent Nishimura—Los Angeles Times/Getty Images)

On the presidential campaign trail last year, then-candidate Joe Biden proposed wiping out $10,000 per student loan borrower. Since taking office, he’s certainly made moves on the forgiveness front. Right out of the gate, Biden ordered the U.S. Department of Education to prepare a memo to see if the president has the authority to bypass Congress and wipe out up to $50,000 per borrower—which, of course, is well above his campaign proposal. Meanwhile, his top education appointee, Education Secretary Miguel Cardona, has issued five rounds of student loan forgiveness this year totaling $11.2 billion and covering disabled and defrauded borrowers, among others.

From the outside looking in, it would be easy to assume broad student loan forgiveness could come any day now. After all, earlier this week Cardona did say that forgiveness “conversations are continuing” inside the White House. But there’s something education insiders tell Fortune that, well, the Biden administration isn’t telling borrowers: Broad student loan forgiveness is unlikely anytime soon.

For starters, it’s not likely the executive branch has the legal authority to pass broad student loan forgiveness. While the U.S. Department of Education has been able to issue smaller rounds of forgiveness (equaling less than 1% of the total $1.7 trillion U.S. student loan debt), those actions are legal because they’re simply tweaking or expanding existing forgiveness programs. That’s very different, legally speaking, from doing “mass” forgiveness for all borrowers through executive action. Indeed, this summer House Speaker Nancy Pelosi told reporters that Biden doesn’t have the power to do it, bluntly adding that “the president can’t do it…that’s not even a discussion.”

But some higher education policy folks think the Biden administration might already have the answer. They point out that White House chief of staff Ron Klain told Politico in March that the memo outlining if the president has the power to wipe out student loan debt would be ready in just “weeks.” Since then, seven months have passed and still no memo.

“The administration may not be leading borrowers on, but they definitely are throwing mixed signals,” Carlo Salerno, vice president for research at CampusLogic and a longtime higher education economist, tells Fortune. “Almost every expert in the space knows that the Department of Education isn’t still ‘researching’ after seven months whether widespread loan forgiveness by executive action is permissible. Not closing the door on this [broad student loan forgiveness] increasingly feels like a political play. Why do all this other loan forgiveness and ignore the 800-pound forgiveness gorilla?”

Even some people in Biden’s own political party are starting to question why the Department of Education hasn’t released the memo. Earlier this month, Rep. Ilhan Omar of Minnesota along with more than a dozen Democratic colleagues in the House sent Biden a letter asking for the forgiveness memo to be released.

That outcry from Democratic lawmakers raises another aspect of the forgiveness discussion.

If student loan cancellation doesn’t come through executive action, it would have to come through Congress. The latter option is something that would be hard to foresee happening anytime soon.

Look no further than Democrats’ struggles to pass their massive $3.5 trillion reconciliation bill. Moderate Democrats, including Sen. Joe Manchin from West Virginia, have already successfully pressured Democratic leadership to scale back that proposal to $1.75 trillion. Doing so meant throwing out proposals like two years of “free” community college and their plan to enact a national paid family-leave policy. That raises the question: If Democratic leadership can’t get moderates like Manchin to stomach $109 billion for “free” community college, then how on earth can they get them onboard with canceling a huge portion of the $1.7 trillion in student loan debt? 

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