Two years ago, in the heat of the race for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination, then-candidate Joe Biden put forth a plan to alleviate student debt: $10,000 in federal loans forgiven for all borrowers.
Biden’s proposal also called for graduates of public universities and historically Black colleges and universities who earned less than $125,000 per year to see their entire federal debt eliminated. In addition, Biden promised to expand access and reduce payments for income-based repayment plans.
As Biden reaches the end of his first year in office, it’s time for him to make good on his promises to a generation of Americans struggling with student loan debt. This would have an enormous impact on Pennsylvania, where 14% of the population has an outstanding federal student loan. According to an analysis by the Institute for College Access and Success, the average student loan debt in Pennsylvania for the Class of 2020 is $39,375, the third-highest in the nation.
Even before the pandemic, student debt had become a major lag on the economy. In the 2019 federal fiscal year, 1.2 million borrowers defaulted on their loans. Even before then, many other borrowers reported that their debts had compelled them to delay personal milestones like getting married, buying a house, and having children. The pause has allowed many young borrowers to reduce other debts or build modest savings.
The Biden administration, and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, claims that it doesn’t have the authority to cancel debt unilaterally and that it needs an act of Congress in order to get it done. Given how many priorities have already been cut from the beleaguered Build Back Better Act, it seems unlikely that loan forgiveness will make its way back in.
Chuck Schumer, the Senate majority leader, disagrees with this assessment. He claims that Biden can eliminate debt with a stroke of a pen. Schumer also wants to forgive a much higher amount of debt, up to $50,000.
While many young Americans would welcome that kind of munificence, Biden had the right idea during the campaign: $10,000 would provide the biggest benefit to borrowers who need it most.
If the Biden administration is unable to legally forgive debt through executive action or is unwilling to risk a forgiveness that might later be revoked, there’s another option available to him, which is extending the current freeze — set to expire in May — until Congress passes the forgiveness plan his campaign proposed back in 2020.
For Biden, this represents not just an opportunity to fulfill a campaign promise, it also forces Republicans to choose between two options they’d prefer to avoid: forgiving debt or extending the freeze.
If Republicans opt against allowing Biden’s moderate debt forgiveness to pass the Senate, extending the debt freeze allows borrowers at least two and a half years to make payments that directly reduce their principal, rather than paying off accumulated interest. If Republicans opt to take the deal and forgive debt, Biden is able to post another campaign promise fulfilled alongside the bipartisan infrastructure investment. Either way, borrowers, particularly those most in need, win — and they certainly could use one.