In two fell swoops, president Biden has canceled student loans amounting to $2.3 billion. First, he canceled student loans for 72,000 borrowers who attended colleges that used deceptive or predatory practices — particularly now-defunct for-profit colleges like ITT Technical Institute and Corinthian Colleges. Then, he canceled another $1 billion for 41,000 borrowers with total and permanent disability.
In a sense, this is a continuation of policy started during the Obama years when many high-profile for-profit colleges were found to have misled students and were forced to shut their doors. The schools lied to prospective students about things like job placement numbers. At first, any students were granted 100% loan forgiveness if they attended a school that had committed fraud. But under President Trump, that changed, and only partial debt relief was offered, depending on how much money applicants earned. This decision essentially reverts things to the initial Obama decision, ensuring that all students who attended fraudulent schools are completely forgiven of their loan.
For Biden, these actions are starting to define his position on student loans in general. Student loans have grown drastically in the past 15 years, with debt reaching $1.6 trillion in 2019 — a whopping 7.5% of the country’s GDP. Around 45 million people are currently in debt with student loans and unlike other forms of school-related financial aid like grants or scholarships, loans have to be paid back.
The matter has grown into a full-blown crisis, particularly as many who took student loans aren’t doing all that well financially. A 2018 Brookings Institution study claimed that “nearly 40 percent of students who took out loans in 2004 may default by 2023. As a result, leading Democrats have called on Biden to take decisive action and cancel $50,000 in federal student loan debt per borrower.
This would be an unprecedented measure, but Biden seems to favor a different approach. The $2.3 billion of forgiven debts, while striking at first glance, represent only a small fraction (about 0.1%) of the total student debt. Biden has shown he is willing to address the problem of student loans but in a more cautious way. At most, Biden said he’d be open to canceling $10,000 per borrower but has said that government shouldn’t forgive debt for people who went to “Harvard and Yale and Penn.”
Biden’s focus has also most been on federal student loan cancellation — not private loans. However, in one of his first acts in office, Biden extended the pause on student loan payments and interest, a measure put in place by Congress last year. Furthermore, in the 2021 stimulus package, Congress also included a provision that would make student loan cancellation tax-free for the borrower, hinting that Congress may be looking at ways to also cancel private loans.
For now, at least, the Biden administration’s approach seems to be to chip at the student loan problem rather than take it head-on. A memo from lawyers at Harvard’s Legal Services Center may offer some indication as to how the administration may proceed. According to the memo, the Department of Education already has more targeted debt cancellation policies in place, focusing on defrauded students as well as disabled veterans.
By simply expanding those programs, Biden could provide relief for hundreds of thousands of more borrowers. This would also address one of the main criticism against debt relief programs: that they’re not targeted and too many wealthy Americans could benefit from them. In fact, Biden’s main idea seems to be finding ways that reduce student debt for those who most need it. The two measures taken so far are relatively small, but they could be an indication of what’s to come.
Biden has also asked Congress to make legislative changes to make it harder for future administrations to revert these plans.