Biden gets firm pushback on student loan forgiveness idea

Yet in era of gridlock, a poor option may be only one for delivering federal aid

December 7, 2020
United States Secret Service agents holds the door for Joe Biden.
Source: Alamy

US president-elect Joe Biden is getting broad resistance even before taking office over his suggestion of extensive student loan debt forgiveness, signalling the wide difficulties awaiting him on college affordability.

With Congress resuming work on an economic bailout bill for industries and people affected by the pandemic, Mr Biden has proposed including $10,000 (£7,400) per borrower in student loan debt forgiveness.

But higher education lobbyists and experts on both ends of the political spectrum are questioning the wisdom of spending scarce federal resources aiding large numbers of former students who might not need the help.

The idea has its greatest support among political progressives, who want to encourage society-wide college enrolment and who call attention to great suffering among many former students, especially those who chose low-quality for-profit institutions. Some 45 million Americans hold an estimated $1.7 trillion in total student debt.

Yet amid their expressions of support, many progressives admit that they see better potential uses for scarce federal dollars within higher education, especially in the context of pandemic relief.

“The idea that student debt cancellation has become the key higher education issue with respect to Covid is a little bit off,” said Jessica Thompson, associate vice-president at the Institute for College Access and Success, an affordability-focused advocacy group.

Student loan forgiveness “potentially creates an incentive for people to borrow who don’t need to borrow”, acknowledged Robert Shireman, a former Obama administration adviser now serving as director of higher education policy at the Century Foundation.

More conservative analysts are far more adamant. As millions of Americans suffer from the nation’s economic tailspin, handing an oversized federal benefit to those who attended college is “not fair and not very consistent”, said Jason Delisle, a higher education expert at the American Enterprise Institute.

Still, Mr Biden’s embrace of the idea, in the face of such reticence, reflects a fundamental problem confronting those who seek more robust federal support for higher education: they may have few other good options.

Unless Democrats score an unlikely sweep in January in the two remaining US Senate races in Georgia, Mr Biden will take office knowing that Republicans hold the power to block his legislative initiatives.

That means tough prospects for Mr Biden’s high-profile campaign promise to eliminate tuition costs for most college students. Student loan forgiveness, however, is recognised as one area where a president can move unilaterally to direct federal money in the general direction of higher education, Ms Thompson said.

She and Mr Shireman, who founded her institute, agreed that such loan forgiveness can be regressive if done with no regard for who is eligible. But they acknowledged that political and economic factors – forgiving $10,000 per borrower amounts to about $350 billion in government spending – make it almost certain that Mr Biden would want some need-based restrictions on eligibility.

Academic leaders appeared to be in alignment on that. Federal policymakers, said Megan Coval, vice-president of policy and federal relations for the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators, should carefully balance any loan forgiveness with policies that help students avoid excessive borrowing in the first place.

But that wish for reasoned assessment, Ms Thompson said, stands in contrast with the hardening partisan gridlock that could push Mr Biden into unilateral solutions to student aid or any number of other major public policy questions.

“The heat of it,” she said of the US political moment, “does not leave a lot of space for nuance or complexity.”

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