Will Biden actually forgive your student loans?

BY Lance LambertSeptember 03, 2021, 1:49 PM
U.S. President Joe Biden speaks in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building in Washington, D.C., as seen in September 2021. (Photo by Al Drago—Bloomberg/Getty Images

In August, the U.S. Department of Education announced another two rounds of student loan forgiveness. The first was for borrowers with disabilities, and the other cancels loans for more former ITT Tech students. In total, the Joe Biden administration has now approved discharging over $9.5 billion in student loans.

While Biden’s camp is clearly more aggressive on the student loan cancellation front than past administrations, his announcements are far from broad student loan forgiveness. In fact, it’s not even 1% of the total $1.7 trillion student loan debt.

On the campaign trail, Biden expressed an openness to forgiving up to $10,000 per borrower in student loans. Through seven months, however, it hasn’t happened.

That poses the question: When—if ever—will Biden actually go through with broad student loan forgiveness?

“I don’t expect to see anything happening regarding student loan forgiveness this year,” Robert Kelchen, higher education professor at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, tells Fortune.

Why? It doesn’t look like the Democratic controlled Congress plans to pass it this year, Kelchen says. Even if they did, moderate Democrats and Republicans could make it hard to pass through the U.S. Senate—where Democrats, through Vice President Kamala Harris’s tie-breaking vote, hold only a one-vote edge over Republicans.

In addition, Kelchen says he doesn’t foresee Biden doing broad student loan forgiveness through an executive order. Back in March, the Biden administration announced it would conduct a study to see if the executive branch has the legal authority to wipe it out. White House chief of staff Ron Klain said they would release that announcement by April. However, as of Sept. 3, the administration still hasn’t released the study.

Even without the study, the odds of an executive order look slim. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi told reporters in July that the White House doesn’t have the power to wipe out borrowers’ student loans through an executive order.

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

If Biden won’t do it through a stroke of the pen, that leaves a passage of Congress as its only route. Pelosi hasn’t said when—or if—that would happen. There is pessimism among higher education insiders that it will get done.

“At this point, I think the odds of broad forgiveness happening during this Congress or even the President’s first administration are low and only getting lower,” says Carlo Salerno, vice president for research at CampusLogic and a longtime higher education economist. “The concerns around who would benefit most would almost surely turn it into a partisan fight that would hamstring a stand-alone bill, and the window for folding it into some of these supermassive spending bills that are already struggling to get passed has probably closed too.”

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