Top Senate Democrats and progressive groups continued to press President Biden on Wednesday to use his executive powers to wipe away up to $50,000 from the debts of all student borrowers — after Biden said for the first time he has no intention of doing so.
Biden addressed the debate over canceling student loans in the strongest terms yet during a town hall meeting sponsored by CNN Tuesday night.
Asked by a member of the audience to make that level of debt relief happen, as Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and Democratic senator Elizabeth Warren have called on him to do, Biden replied, “I will not make that happen.”
Biden did say he would support canceling a smaller amount, $10,000.
But for the first time, Biden said he thinks wiping $50,000 from the balances of all student loan borrowers is too much. “I’m prepared to write off $10,000 of debt but not $50 [thousand],” he said.
Even progressives are divided over the growing calls from the left to cancel a good chunk of the nation’s $1.5 trillion in student debt. Biden’s remarks reflected the concerns of some critics of canceling the debt of even wealthy college graduates and that the cost to the federal government could be used for other things.
“It depends on whether or not you go to a public university or a private university,” Biden said. “It depends on the idea that I say to a community, ‘I’m going to forgive the debt — tens of thousands of dollars of debt — for people who have gone to Harvard and Yale and Penn,’” he said. Biden, who earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Delaware, noted that he went to a state university.
The National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities balked at the idea that the private institutions it represents are being singled out in the debate over high student debt. An association spokesman noted in an email that Harvard students in 2020 had a median debt of $10,000 upon graduation, compared to the $28,000.average at public institutions.
Canceling the debt of even those who have graduated from the nation’s most elite private institutions, he said, would come at the expense of using that money for other things, such as providing “for early education and for young children who come from disadvantaged circumstances.”
The money for debt cancellation, he said, could also be used to pay for his proposal to increase funding for historically Black colleges and universities by $80 billion over a decade. That would help HBCUs build the research laboratories they need “to bring in government contracts to train people in cybersecurity or other future endeavors that pay well,” he said.
Biden said that he would address the problem of students having to go into debt to attend college by making community colleges free for all students, as well as eliminating tuition at four-year public institutions for those whose families make less than $125,000. He also said he supports eliminating the interest on remaining student loans.
The remarks are the latest twist in whether the administration believes Biden can cancel debt alone. Biden has questioned before whether he has the authority. “It’s arguable that the president may have the executive power to forgive up to $50,000 in student debt,” Biden told a group of newspaper columnists in December.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki gave debt cancellation advocates some hope in a tweet two weeks ago. “The president continues to support the cancelling of student debt to bring relief to students and families,” Psaki wrote. “Our team is reviewing whether there are any steps he can take through executive action and he would welcome the opportunity to sign a bill sent to him by Congress.”
But then came Biden’s comments at the town hall meeting that he doesn’t think he has the power.
Despite Biden’s comments, the Senate’s leading advocates for debt cancellation — Schumer, from New York, and Warren, of Massachusetts — said they still believe Biden will come around.
“Presidents Obama and Trump used their executive authority to cancel student loan debt. The Biden administration has said it is reviewing options for cancelling up to $50,000 in student debt by executive action, and we are confident they will agree with the standards Obama and Trump used as well as leading legal experts who have concluded that the administration has broad authority to immediately deliver much-needed relief to millions of Americans,” Schumer and Warren said in a joint statement on Wednesday.
“An ocean of student loan debt is holding back 43 million borrowers and disproportionately weighing down Black and Brown Americans. Cancelling $50,000 in federal student loan debt will help close the racial wealth gap, benefit the 40 percent of borrowers who do not have a college degree, and help stimulate the economy. It’s time to act,” the senators said. “We will keep fighting.”
Representative Ayanna Pressley, a Democrat from Massachusetts and an advocate for large-scale cancellation, also continued to urge Biden on Twitter to wipe away $50,000 of debt.
Alexis Goldstein, senior policy analyst for Americans for Financial Reform, noted that 329 progressive and consumer organizations wrote Biden in January urging him to cancel the debt unilaterally. She vowed that the groups will continue to keep pushing him to act.
That Biden is flatly saying that he will not act through executive order is a blow to the hopes of those seeking $50,000 in cancellation. Congress would have to act to provide $50,000 of relief. And the prospects for that, with Democrats holding a slim majority in the Senate, is uncertain at best.
Even congressional Democrats are divided over the issue. When Schumer and Warren introduced a resolution in the Senate two weeks ago calling on Biden to unilaterally cancel $50,000 in debt, only 16 of the Senate’s 50 Democrats co-sponsored the resolution.
Spokespeople for the remaining 34 Democrats declined to comment on the record or did not return press inquiries over the past week. Some said the senators were still undecided about the issue.
But one aide to a Democratic senator who did not join the call for debt relief acknowledged there are differences over how much to cancel.
The aide, though, noted that even having the debate represents progress for the cause. “It’s refreshing to finally have the debate about how much rather than if it should happen,” the aide said.