student loans

Biden’s Student-Loan Forgiveness Is Good. It Could Have Been Revolutionary.

Photo: Craig F. Walker/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

On Wednesday, August 24, millions of debtors received the news they’d been waiting to hear. President Biden will forgive some federally held student-loan debt, the White House announced. Pell Grant recipients making less than $125,000 per year individually or $250,000 jointly qualify for $20,000 in debt relief. Those who did not receive Pell Grants but meet the income requirements are eligible for $10,000 in relief. The Biden administration will extend a pause on student-loan repayment for a final time to December 31, 2022, and, in a major move, cap income-based repayments for undergraduate loans at 5 percent of a person’s monthly income. For those on income-based repayment plans, the government will cover their unpaid monthly interest as long as they make their monthly payment.

According to internal documents shared with the Washington Post, the White House estimates that around 43 million people will be eligible for some relief and more than 20 million will have their debts canceled. That’s something, and, as a bonus, it has infuriated some of the worst people around.

“Why does Biden not want to do the same thing for loans on trucks owned by plumbers?” Oxford-educated Charles C. W. Cooke asks in a piece for the National Review. “The answer, I’m afraid to say, is disgustingly classist: Because Joe Biden and his party believe that college students are better than everyone else.” Back in the land of reality, the White House estimates that people making less than $75,000 per year will represent 90 percent of its proposed relief. A college education does not guarantee personal wealth, and student-loan debt by definition excludes the truly rich. A Rockefeller doesn’t need to take out student loans to pay for college. Most debtors, in fact, had Pell Grants, designed for “undergraduate students who display exceptional financial need.” Biden’s plan is hardly some giveaway to the American elite.

At the same time, the plan falls short of the president’s campaign promises. Biden had previously pledged to forgive “all undergraduate tuition-related federal student debt from two- and four-year public colleges and universities for debt-holders earning up to $125,000, with appropriate phase-outs to avoid a cliff,” according to a Medium post published in April 2020. That’s not what the president is proposing now. The plan falls far short of proposals from the left: Senator Bernie Sanders had called for canceling all student-loan debt, and a proposal from Senator Elizabeth Warren would have forgiven $50,000 in student-loan debt with an income cap of $250,000. The president could’ve gone further, in other words, though to do so, he would have needed to buck opposition from the center as well as the right.

Although Biden’s plan will be life-changing for many, it’s necessary to think about what could have been had he or his administration possessed the necessary imagination or will. Student-loan debt is not a natural disaster: It became a crisis because of political decisions made decades ago. In the debates over plans and proposals, the human toll of student-loan debt can become lost. Student-loan debt ruins lives. It delays or even prevents people from starting families or buying homes. It inhibits even the simplest acts of enjoying life. This is cruel and unnecessary. The repayment pause is proof that society can survive without millions locked into a predatory debt scheme. Given these circumstances, it feels more than a little insulting that Biden waited two years to put forward a student-loan plan that didn’t even fulfill all of his campaign promises. People deserve better solutions from the president, and they deserved them years ago.

Further action will be necessary to dismantle the inhumane policy decisions that turned student-loan debt into such a crisis. Biden can’t address that all on his own. Congress will have to act, and one such solution would be to make public college free. “Addressing the student-debt crisis is just the beginning. To prevent another generation of students from being forced to take on unsustainable amounts of debt, instituting free public higher education must be a priority,” Suzanne Kahn of the Roosevelt Institute said in a statement. Without consensus within the Democratic Party, though, permanent reform still looks like a dream. There are miles to go before Americans are truly free of student-loan debt — or the system that created it.

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