Editor’s Note: David M. Perry is a journalist and historian and co-author of “The Bright Ages: A New History of Medieval Europe.” He is a senior academic adviser in the history department of the University of Minnesota. Follow him on Twitter. The views expressed here are those of the author. View more opinion on CNN.
The Biden administration is taking action on student debt by making long overdue changes to the federal student loan forgiveness program. It’s taken too long, and the proposed measures are not nearly sufficient to address the problem, but it’s a start. Now President Joe Biden, watching his legislative agenda stall, needs to be bolder and forgive as much student loan debt as possible for as many people as possible. It’s good politics, and once done, will be hard for Republicans to undo. It’s extremely good economics, as student loan debt holds tens of millions of people back. And it’s about damn time.
In October 2020, then-candidate Biden promised Americans that he would at least start the process toward student debt relief. The number he kept citing was $10,000 per person (for just some families and just for those who went to public colleges and HBCUs), in response to the economic hardships of the pandemic. It’s a modest sum and one that feels arbitrary at best.
As solutions go, it seemed to be insufficient to the scale of the problem. According to the research site educationdata.org, which analyzes data about the US education system from institutions like the National Center for Education Statistics, “students who used their federal loans to attend public institutions owe an average of $26,382.” What’s more, although some people seem to think of rich schools with large endowments like Harvard or Duke when they hear the words “private university,” a large number of private schools are local, tuition-driven, community-serving schools, often with a religious mission. (As a disclosure, I taught at one school like this for a decade serving a population of first-generation students and often first-generation Americans.) Students who happened to choose a private university, especially because the cost is often about the same as a public school for a very different kind of education, also need help.
At any rate, this proposed partial measure of Biden’s hasn’t materialized. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has said that Biden doesn’t have the authority to use an executive order to cancel student debt, but many Democratic lawmakers, including Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, and over 400 experts, organizations and even attorneys general disagree, urging him to cancel at least $50,000.
The Biden administration’s incremental improvements to already extant programs, though, merit praise. In August, the Department of Education canceled $1.1 billion for borrowers defrauded by a for-profit college, and $5.8 billion for borrowers unable to work due to permanent disabilities. The change for this latter program centered around automatically applying the benefit to borrowers who the federal government already recognized as qualifying, rather than requiring complicated administrative processes and potentially significant tax liabilities.
Now they’ve taken similar moves to improve the public service loan forgiveness program, including permitting more types of loans to count retroactively, and taking steps to automatically wipe away debt for people who (as with disability) the federal government already knows merit the benefit. This will include federal employees of all types, including members of the military. Not everyone and not all kinds of loans will qualify, but for those who do, the future will get a lot brighter.
Administrative burdens, as public policy professors Pamela Herd and Donald Moynihan explain in their book on the topic, not only can deny people benefits and rights they deserve, but shape our entire sense of what government is and who it serves. Most people (though not former President Donald Trump) likely agree that someone who works for the public good and pays their loans for 10 years deserves a break going forward, at least in comparison to someone who takes their skills to their private sector and makes more money. But if the system is too tangled in bureaucracy, which has been the case, the result won’t match the stated policy. The Biden administration’s move to streamline these relatively popular programs is welcome.
But all is not well. In August, just as the first wave of debt relief programs was underway, the US Department of Education announced that it would be making a “final” extension to its Covid-related repayment and interest moratorium and asked that people prepare for repayment to resume when the suspension ends on January 31, 2022. Individual borrowers I know have begun receiving emails warning them to get ready to start paying again.
In February the administration announced that it was continuing to look into whether the President could act on this crisis through executive action.
However it’s done, President Biden needs to make good, at a minimum, on his $10,000 pledge. I urge him, though, to pick a number that more realistically acknowledges the scope of the problem. During a CNN town hall in February, he said “I am prepared to write off the $10,000 debt but not $50 [thousand], because I don’t think I have the authority to do it.”
But perhaps he can do the $26,382 that public university students owe on average, according to EducationData.org.
Or, If that’s too high, maybe he can try for even the $13,414 that the Community College Review says community college students accrue in debt on average. Peg the relief to a real number, and then be prepared to issue similar relief at the same level in the future. Or finally reckon with the fact that the decision (made in the 1960s by Congress) to fund higher education through loans, including private loans, rather than by controlling costs and subsidizing public institutions sufficiently, was a mistake. We, as a nation, can make better choices.
It’s still up in the air whether and how much federal student loan debt the president can cancel. But I’d like him to try. And then, if Republicans want to fight to reimpose tens of thousands of debt on tens of millions of voters, let them. That’s not a fight they want.