More than a year into his first term, Loren Ewing is disappointed that President Joe Biden hasn’t moved to forgive student debt. She remembers his vow on the campaign trail to deliver “immediate cancellation of a minimum of $10,000” per person.
“As soon as the election cycle got through, and he got in office, crickets,” said Ewing, 24, who lives in Cincinnati and owes close to $40,000 in student loans.
Along with Ewing, 57% of Americans say they want the president to make student loan forgiveness a priority, according to an CNBC + Acorns Invest In You Student Loan Survey, conducted by Momentive. (The online poll was conducted January 10 to 13 among a national sample of 5,162 adults.)
More than a third of Gen Z and millennials believe student loan forgiveness should be a high priority for Biden.
Outstanding student loan debt in the U.S. has exceeded $1.7 trillion and poses a larger burden to households than credit card or auto debt. Roughly a quarter of borrowers, or 10 million people, are estimated to be in delinquency or default.
No historical precedent exists for the kind of sweeping student loan forgiveness the president is increasingly under pressure to provide by members in his party, advocates and so many borrowers who say the lending system is predatory and perpetuates inequality.
“Student debt is a policy failure,” said Thomas Gokey, co-founder of the Debt Collective, a national union of debtors. “We must cancel this unjust debt, which will also help build pressure to solve the root cause. We must fully fund public colleges and universities so that no one is forced into debt for an education in the future.”
The White House is currently weighing the legal and political risks of such a large move. An executive order canceling the debt could be challenged in the courts, possibly by Republican lawmakers, throwing the accounts of more than 40 million borrowers into limbo.
There are also reports that there are disagreements on the topic within Biden’s closest circle. The president himself has questioned if providing loan cancellation to those who’ve benefited from a college education is the best way to buoy middle class families.
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Yet progressives and advocates say the student debt crisis has caused the most pain to women, people of color and those who didn’t come from wealthy families who could foot the rising bills of a college education. And they warn that inaction will cost Democrats in the midterms.
“A lack of movement on student debt cancellation will result in the Democratic party’s base — young people, Black voters — staying at home,” Gokey said.
Recent polls show Biden’s approval rating among young people is on the decline.
Ewing, who studied environmental science at the University of Cincinnati and currently works at a daycare making $400 a week, said she feels frustrated and disappointed by both political parties.
“Neither side wants to help us,” she said. Although if Biden were to cancel student loans, she said, “I’d give him another term and stay with the Democrats.”
For Jeff Riesenmy, student debt cancellation is right up there with issues like climate change and income inequality that he wants to see Biden prioritizing. He currently owes around $170,000 in student loans, which, after more than a decade of payments, is still more than he originally borrowed because of interest charges.
“I don’t think people understand just how crazy it is,” said Riesenmy, 35, who graduated from Emory Law School in 2012.
Today he lives in Austin, Texas, and has a well-paying job as a product manager at a technology company, but his student debt feels insurmountable.
“This is by far the single major stressor in my life,” Riesenmy said. “It factors into every financial decision I make: Can I have a kid? Can I buy a house?”
The White House has repeatedly said it supports Congress drafting legislation to cancel student debt, but the odds of such a bill passing are near impossible, experts say. Even some Democrats don’t support broad loan cancellation.
Aware of this, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y. and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., have been pressuring the president to deliver the relief through executive order, arguing that he has the authority to do so.
“You don’t need Congress,” Schumer has said. “You just need the flick of a pen.”
Biden has asked the U.S. Department of Education to prepare a memo outlining his power to forgive student loans, but the agency has had that report for more than 10 months and its findings have still not been made public. Over 80 House and Senate members wrote a letter to Biden this month urging his administration to share that report and to immediately cancel $50,000 in student debt for all, which would cost around $1 trillion.
“It’s a cop out to punt to Congress,” Riesenmy said. “I don’t see much of an excuse for inaction at this point.”
A spokesperson for the White House said the president continues to look into what debt relief actions can be taken administratively. In the meantime, Biden has extended the payment pause for student loan borrowers that has been in effect since March 2020. Payments are expected to restart in May.
Ian Rhodewalt, an educator and union employee, who lives in Amherst, Mass., said he believes student loan cancellation should be an “urgent priority” for the president.
He and his wife owe more than $130,000, and say the debt has their life on pause.
“We cannot buy a home because of student debt,” said Rhodewalt, 36, who graduated from Oberlin College in 2009 with a degree in creative writing and dance. He also is finishing a degree in labor studies at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.
“It’s harder to make larger purchases, like appliances,” Rhodewalt said. “It also affects how much money we can put towards retirement.”
Rhodewalt helped to write a resolution calling on Biden to cancel student debt that was recently passed by the Western Massachusetts Area Labor Federation, a coalition of more than 60 public and private-sector unions.
“Student loan debt cancellation will be a big topic among unions,” Rhodewalt predicted.
“Working class people, when they seek any form of further education beyond high school, are more at risk of falling into the student loan debt trap and having their families anchored by debt for generations,” he said.
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