When President Biden took office just over a year ago, many proponents of student debt relief hoped that their moment had finally come and that a wide cross-section of Americans would soon see these loans erased.
Once a fringe idea, such debt relief has grown in popularity in recent years, embraced by progressive Democrats and some Republicans, including former President Donald J. Trump. During the election campaign, Biden pledged to forgive at least $10,000 of debt for each student borrower. He also promised to cancel federal student debt incurred at public colleges and universities, historically black colleges and universities, and other minority-serving institutions for borrowers earning up to $125,000 a year.
More than a year into his term, however, those promises have not materialized. Notably, in Tuesday’s State of the Union address, Biden touched on increasing the maximum Pell grant and expanding support for HBCUs and community colleges, but made no mention of debt. student. And while he spoke about college affordability in a speech last year to a joint session of Congress, he also didn’t mention student loans. In contrast, President Barack Obama has spoken about student debt in each of his State of the Union addresses. Biden’s omissions may indicate concerns about the political tools he has the power to wield and the political feasibility of wielding them.
The problem affects 45 million people, who hold a combined student debt of $1.7 trillion, according to the Student Borrower Protection Center. The issue is also a priority for many student borrowers now, as the pause that was put in place for federal student loan repayments during the pandemic is due to expire on May 1, although it has been extended several times and could to be again.
Among those borrowers is Jennifer Cardenas, 34, of Fontana, California. The daughter of Mexican immigrants, Cardenas said that in high school she wanted to go to college, but felt she had to work to support her five younger siblings. Cardenas worked a hodgepodge of jobs after graduating from high school, including retail, warehouses, restaurants and tutoring, but always thought she should go to university to make a better life. Cardenas also dreamed of one day running for office to better help her community, where she felt the voices of black and brown families were not represented in government.
Cardenas finally graduated from Columbia University last spring with a debt of $67,000. She works full-time as an outreach specialist for Young Invincibles, a youth advocacy organization, and has a part-time job working with students learning English, paying off her private student loan while her federal loan. it is on standby. She says she and other students of color “value higher education as a form of social mobility.”
“There’s no other way for me to be able to bridge that gap without going to graduate school,” she said.
Cardenas isn’t alone in arguing that student debt is a fairness issue. “When you think about who bears the burden of student debt in our country, it’s women, black women, and in California, Latina women,” said Kristin McGuire, executive director of Young Invincibles. “We have a system that has a disproportionate impact on these people who are [also] affected by declining wages and continues to perpetuate cycles of debt and poverty in these communities.
Rather than pursuing universal loan relief for student borrowers, the Biden administration has so far taken a more targeted approach. For example, last fall the U.S. Department of Education expanded the eligibility and scope of the Civil Service Loan Forgiveness Program, which forgives student loans for government and private sector workers. non-profit groups. The administration has also stepped up its efforts to help borrowers who have been defrauded by their colleges and discharged the debt of borrowers with permanent disabilities. In total, the administration says it has forgiven about $17 billion in student loans for more than 700,000 borrowers.
Braxton Brewington, the press secretary for Debt Collective, a national union for debtors, called the administration’s efforts so far “grossly insufficient.”
“Student loans are financially devastating to our economy and to people’s personal finances,” Brewington said. “They can’t afford the basics that allow you to live a dignified life.”
The issue of student debt relief is attracting broad interest across the political spectrum. According to a recent poll by the Student Borrower Protection Center, nearly two-thirds of likely voters support forgiveness of some or all student loan debt, with even stronger support among black and Latino likely voters.
But as advocates push for Biden to help borrowers through executive action, the administration has said it is waiting for Congress to act. It is not legally clear whether the president has the authority to unilaterally discharge federal student loan debt.
Despite the allure of debt relief, universal loan forgiveness could raise both political and political questions. Some fear a broad write-off could be politically unpopular, given that some borrowers can afford to repay their loans and others have worked a long time to repay them.
Jonathan Fansmith, assistant vice president for government relations at the American Council on Education, which favors targeted relief for borrowers but is more cautious about widespread student loan forgiveness, said areas of higher education than Biden had distinguished in the State of the Union are a good indication of his priorities.
Given that a year has passed and White House officials have avoided acting on universal forgiveness and focused on narrower approaches, he said, it seems “unlikely that ‘they are doing something’ on the issue.
But advocates say they will continue to work for universal debt relief. “We will continue to fight hard,” Young Invincibles’ McGuire said. “We have majority support.