Will broad student loan forgiveness happen? Biden won’t say

BY Sydney LakeJanuary 25, 2022, 5:03 PM
U.S. President Joe Biden speaks as he meets with members of his administration on efforts to lower prices for working families at the East room of the White House, in Washington, DC, as seen in January 2022. (Photo by Brendan Smialowski—AFP/Getty Images)

During his first year in office, President Joe Biden has canceled more than $11 billion in federal student loans—but outstanding debt still stands at $1.7 trillion-plus. He campaigned on canceling $10,000 of each borrower’s debt, but has only acted on forgiving loans for targeted groups, including those people who attended now-defunct institutions, have total and permanent disabilities, and public service workers. Forgiveness so far accounts for only 1% of all outstanding federal student loan debt.

Last week during a press conference, Biden was posed this question: “You campaigned on canceling $10,000 in student loans.  Do you still plan to do so, and when?”

He ignored the question. 

Biden has remained quiet on mass student loan forgiveness despite mounting pressure from top Democrats and other borrower advocates who are pushing him to forgive up to $50,000 in federal student loans. Some of his silence may have to do with the fact that he doesn’t believe he can cancel debt en-mass using an executive order.

“I don’t think I have the authority to do it by signing [an executive order],” Biden said during a CNN town hall on Feb. 17, 2021. But Biden also doesn’t think that all borrowers should be granted forgiveness. 

During that same CNN town hall last year, Biden said he objected to forgiving student loan debt for borrowers who went to “elite” private colleges including Harvard University, Yale 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

In Biden’s original plan to “immediately cancel a minimum of $10,000 of student debt per person,” he said he would forgive “all undergraduate tuition-related federal student debt from two- and four-year public colleges and universities for debt-holders earning up to $125,000.” According to Investopedia, an Ivy League graduate last year made $73,575, on average.

What to expect from Biden moving forward

The long and short of it is that it’s hard to say what Biden will ultimately do about canceling federal student loan debt. So far, Biden has shown that he’s more open to canceling debt for targeted groups of borrowers. 

“The Biden administration has a real track record now that we can look to and know how it thinks about awarding student loan relief,” Andrew Pentis, a certified student loan counselor with Student Loan Hero, previously told Fortune. “It’s been a track record of targeted relief to specific borrowers—not the mass forgiveness proposals that many progressives have called for.”

Although Biden doesn’t believe he can cancel student loan debt through an executive order, other student debt experts note that it could be accomplished by an act of Congress. Congress is more likely “now than previously” to pass legislation that would implement mass student debt cancellation,” Mark Kantrowitz, author of How to Appeal for More College Financial Aid, previously told Fortune

However, he says that “some Democrats will balk at the cost of forgiveness.”

“With Democrats controlling Congress through the slimmest of margins, every Democrat has a veto,” Kantrowitz says. “So, it seems likely that broad loan forgiveness will be limited in amount and eligibility.”

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