Biden hasn’t followed through on his pledge to ‘immediately cancel’ $10,000 per student loan borrower

BY Lance LambertJanuary 04, 2022, 4:02 PM
President Joe Biden attends a virtual meeting in January 2022.
President Joe Biden attends a meeting in January 2022.
Sarah Silbiger—Getty Images

Not only did President Joe Biden win the youth vote, he ran away with it. But nearly one year into office, some of those voters feel betrayed by the president’s campaign promises on student debt relief.

The Democratic nominee hauled in 60% of the vote among Americans between the ages of 18 and 29, compared with Donald Trump’s 36% in 2020. That 24 percentage point margin was well above the 18 percentage point edge Hillary Clinton pulled off with the demographic in 2016. While a lot of factors contributed to the uptick, Biden’s ambitious promises for student loan forgiveness—something that unsurprisingly polls strongly with younger Americans—certainly didn’t hurt.

During the 2016 race, Clinton promised to make in-state tuition free for students from families earning less than $125,000. Progressives at the time said that the pledge didn’t go far enough and that it needed to include debt forgiveness. Fast-forward to the 2020 primaries, which saw Biden go even further than Clinton: In March 2020, he tweeted that he’d support forgiving a minimum of $10,000 in federal student loan debt per borrower.

Not long afterward, Biden went on to outline his student loan forgiveness plan. His plan, he wrote in a post on Medium, would “immediately cancel a minimum of $10,000 of student debt per person” and 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.”

But through nearly 12 months in office, Biden hasn’t come close to keeping that pledge. So far, the Biden administration has issued several rounds of forgiveness for public servants, disabled borrowers, and defrauded students. However, those rounds only amount to $11.24 billion in student loans—or less than 1% of the total $1.8 trillion U.S. student loan debt.

Why hasn’t Biden kept his student loan forgiveness promise?

For starters, Democratic leadership in Congress hasn’t included the $10,000 debt cancellation—or for that matter any student loan wipeouts—in the legislation they tried to push through in 2021. It’s unclear if that will change in 2022. And if it does, the proposal would likely face an uphill battle getting approval from moderates like Sen. Joe Manchin—who recently worked to remove “free community college” from the latest reconciliation bill.

Unable to pass it through Congress, that has left Biden with only one other possible route: executive action. Last spring, the White House said it would look into seeing if it had the legal authority to wipe out student loan debt through a simple executive order.

However, we’ve yet to see that final report. The reason? Some industry insiders tell Fortune it’s likely because the White House has already determined it lacks the power to bypass Congress and issue such a broad debt cancellation—not to mention House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s blunt comments over the summer when she said Biden doesn’t have the legal authority to forgive debt through executive authority.

Of course, the Biden administration could continue to expand existing student loan forgiveness programs—like income-driven repayment plans and Public Service Loan Forgiveness—this year. However, that still wouldn’t amount to anything close to the $10,000 he promised voters, nor would it match the pace of providing forgiveness “immediately” as pledged.

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