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Student loan borrowers looking for promising signs that their debt will be forgiven have come up short of late.
President Joe Biden didn’t include any debt cancellation in his budget request to Congress. Loan forgiveness was also absent from the president’s plans to rebuild the country’s infrastructure and his agenda to deliver relief to middle-class families, which included a national paid leave policy and subsidized child care.
Recent remarks by the president haven’t been too encouraging, either. In an interview with columnist David Brooks of The New York Times in May, Biden said: “The idea that you go to Penn and you’re paying a total of 70,000 bucks a year and the public should pay for that? I don’t agree.” And at a CNN town hall in February, Biden said that it didn’t make sense to cancel the loans “for people who have gone to Harvard and Yale and Penn.”
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Still, experts say that student debt forgiveness remains on the table.
“There is certainly a chance,” said Andre M. Perry, senior fellow with the Brookings Metropolitan Policy Program.
“Schumer and Warren make a formidable pair,” he added, referring to Senate Majority leader Chuck Schumer, of New York, and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass. “In addition, civil rights groups like the NAACP are mobilizing.”
Perry is referring to Warren’s and Schumer’s repeated calls on the president to cancel $50,000 in student debt for all borrowers, as well as NAACP President Derrick Johnson’s recent criticism of Biden for not prioritizing loan forgiveness.
The president is also being lobbied by some 400 other organizations, including the ACLU and the American Federation of Teachers. Public pressure is mounting, too: More than 1 million people have signed a Change.org petition calling on Biden to cancel student loans. Polling, meanwhile, shows that two-thirds of Americans support some version of debt cancellation.
“Student loan forgiveness wasn’t included in the president’s budget request or in the infrastructure legislation,” said higher education expert Mark Kantrowitz. “Some people are interpreting that as the president moving away from loan forgiveness.
“I don’t see it that way.”
Biden has asked the U.S. Department of Justice and the U.S. Department of Education to review his legal authority to forgive student debt through executive action, Kantrowitz pointed out. The fact that those reports are still pending may explain why we haven’t heard anything more definitive yet.
“He’s not going to take any steps until that report comes back,” Kantrowitz said.
Legal experts and other Democrats insist that the president has the power to cancel student debt without Congress. “All you need is the flick of a pen,” Schumer has said.
Even if government officials conclude that Biden doesn’t have such authority, there could still be hope.
Although Democrats might find it hard to pass legislation forgiving student debt in Congress, given their razor-thin majority, they could turn such a bill into law though the budget reconciliation process in the fall. That avenue wouldn’t require the support of Republicans.
Most student loan borrowers haven’t made a payment in over a year, thanks to the Education Department’s interest waiver first announced in March 2020. That break will likely come to an end in October, although Education Secretary Miguel Cardona recently said that an extension was under consideration.
That would give borrowers more time before they have to resume payments. It would also buy the White House and lawmakers more time to move to get the loans forgiven.