Biden tries again on major student debt forgiveness plan

Shortly after US Supreme Court rejects sweeping debt forgiveness plan, administration embarks on new attempt using different legal basis

July 19, 2023
First category allegorical float: "buffalo Biden" builder Carlo Lombardi. canevale of Viareggio, in Tuscany, Italy
Source: iStock

Just two weeks after the Supreme Court invalidated Joe Biden’s $400 billion (£310 billion) student debt forgiveness plan, the US president has opened a new process to try it again.

“We will keep working to ensure that borrowers get the help they are entitled to,” Mr Biden’s undersecretary of education, James Kvaal, told a day-long hearing to begin writing new regulations to formally cancel large swathes of student debt.

In the plan rejected late last month by the Supreme Court, the Biden administration tried to take advantage of the Covid pandemic to wipe away student debt under the terms of a law that allows such actions during a national emergency.

The new effort relies on a separate part of federal higher education law that gives the president a more general authority to waive education-related debts owed to the government.

That is not necessarily a guarantee against a similar rejection by the Supreme Court, as the court’s conservative supermajority – in waging an ideological battle against the size of government – has put forth a broad assertion that presidents cannot take what the court considers to be major financial actions without the explicit approval of Congress.

And politically, Republicans have made clear their intent to keep up the fight. “Biden’s push for massive student loan debt cancellation is an alarming overreach,” Michael Burgess, a Republican representative from Texas, said in a Twitter post. “Ignoring the recent Supreme Court decision and our constitutional framework sets a dangerous precedent.”

Republicans controlling the House of Representatives also have put forth a fiscal 2024 budget that would cut Education Department spending by at least 15 per cent.

Despite such opposition, the Biden administration is pushing ahead on multiple strategies for lowering student debt – widely considered a major drag on the US economy, with 45 million borrowers owing nearly $1.8 trillion from their college days.

Mr Biden, who promised broad debt relief during his 2020 presidential campaign, has taken multiple opportunities since then to enact it, largely by waiving debts involving substandard education at for-profit institutions.

Just in the days since the Supreme Court ruling, the administration knocked off another $39 billion in federal student loan debt by tracking down and eliminating debts that should have been forgiven through existing federal income-driven repayment plans that failed to work properly because of mismanagement by the government and private loan servicers. That brought total student debt forgiveness offered by the Biden administration to $116 billion among 3.4 million borrowers.

The major Biden plan that was rejected by the Supreme Court would have cut student debt by $10,000 to $20,000 per borrower, with the forgiven amounts tied to borrower wealth and limited to those earning less than $125,000 a year. The plan would have eliminated student debt entirely for about 20 million borrowers, the administration estimated.

The administration has been less clear about the details of its new replacement plan. The day-long hearing led by Mr Kvaal opened a standard process through which presidents can rewrite regulations – the rules that define the implementation of laws passed by Congress – as long as they submit their plans through a formal months-long process that allows for comment by affected parties.

“We want to help borrowers who were let down by the fundamental bargain of federal student loans – that investments in yourself and your education will help lead you to a better life,” Mr Kvaal told the session.

The administration also faces some scepticism from members of both parties concerned that debt relief does not attack the structural issues of affordability in US higher education that will continue to force students to borrow more than many of them can repay. And the financial pressure on both public and private US institutions looks unrelenting, the credit rating agency Fitch Ratings said in a new annual report on the health of colleges and universities nationwide.

With public institutions feeling the expiration of federal Covid relief aid, and many private campuses facing higher costs and declining net tuition and fee revenue, the overall outlook suggests “rating performance skewing negative”, Fitch said.

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