Pressure Mounts to Cancel Student Debt with Biden Hesitant to Fulfill Campaign Promise

Democrats are leaning on President Biden to fulfill another anticipated campaign promise: canceling student debt. As the President enters his fourth month in office, top Democrats and student voters alike are confused at the lack of momentum propelling his ambitious proposal.

Biden promised to forgive $10,000 in student loans but after increasing pressure from fellow Democrats, borrowers, and advocates, he announced his administration planned to forgive $50,000 per student through executive action. However, even the president seems unsure of the proposal’s ambitious upgrade, as he expressed hesitancy at bypassing Congress to pass the bill. However, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said in February he “hasn’t ruled out the possibility.”

Biden delighted hopeful citizens on his first day in office by extending a pause on payments for federal student loan borrowers that took effect in March and will end in September 2021. Last Thursday, he asked Education Secretary Miguel Cardona to prepare a report on his legal authority to proceed with canceling $50,000 in student debt. He also canceled debt collected by students at for-profit schools and expanded loan forgiveness for public sector workers. However, Biden expressed hesitancy to cancel loan debt for students who went to top-tier, private colleges. He believes the federal government should not forgive debt for students who went to schools such as “Harvard and Yale and Pen.” With college costs on a steep rise and scholarships failing to match velocity, Harvard’s $72,391 package is tough to swallow for many who, through merit, deserve a chance to attend. 

In February, Biden said student loans should have 0% interest, a move that was included in his repayment freeze lasting through September. White House chief of staff Ron Klain said Biden plans to “look at that legal authority, he’ll look at the policy issues around that and he’ll make a decision.”

Frustration is growing amongst top Democrats who feel Biden’s level of initiative in fulfilling his promise doesn’t match their own ambitions for the bill. Senate Majority Leader Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., is leading the criticism against Biden’s hesitancy. “You don’t need Congress,” Schumer told reporters Friday, “All you need is the flick of a pen.”

During her 2020 run in the Democratic presidential primary, Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren vowed to forgive student loans and released an analysis written by legal experts who described the use of executive order in forgiving loans as “lawful and permissible.” Opponents of its use in Biden’s proposal say Biden could face rebuke in court if he tried to cancel debt on his own.

Even before the onset of the pandemic, around a quarter of people with student loans were in default or delinquency. Now, there are over 44 million U.S. student borrowers and the country’s balance is expected to rise from $1.7 trillion to $2 trillion by 2022. Canceling $50,000 for all borrowers would shrink the current student loan debt balance to $700 billion. However, this plan only extends to 80% of all federal student loan borrowers, or 36 million people, and excludes private loans.    

Critics of Biden’s plan say students who choose to take out loans to attend college have a responsibility to pay them back in full, regardless of circumstance. Others say it would benefit college graduates who earn high incomes but delay paying their loans. However, any attempt to slow the runaway train that college tuition has become will increase the number of students who are able to enter the job market as graduates.