Juneteenth has come and gone, and as a native Texan, I love that everyone can now celebrate it as a federally recognized holiday. But I also want my people to celebrate something else—freedom from the heavy burden of student loans that Black men and women are saddled with more than anyone else. As a student loan debt survivor who is trying to crawl his way out of the six figure sum of debt I took on just to get half a shot of the kind of success most white people trip into, I want more of us to have money to spend for the next Juneteenth holiday weekend.
Joe Biden could be doing a lot more on that front and it may be time to further turn up the pressure. Recently, the Department of Education led by President Biden released a regulatory agenda that, unlike the administration’s recent budget, at least makes mention of student loan forgiveness. However, as others have noticed, the language offered is curiously vague.
As highlighted on the Education Department’s page, they note Biden’s agenda includes “improving student loan cancellation authorities.” Education Secretary Miguel Cardona plans to “amend regulations to improve borrower eligibility, application requirements and processes” for borrowers who meet loan cancellation criteria like being totally and permanently disabled, or attending a recently closed school. Moreover, the department would seek to review the Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF) program and “plans to look at these regulations for improvements,” along with amending the “borrower defense to repayment,” which forgives loans for students who were defrauded by for-profit schools.
But as Business Insider’s Ayelet Sheffey reports, “while the department’s plans to review those programs are promising for borrowers, specific details are unclear. That’s why Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren and other Democrats are calling on Biden to cancel $50,000 in student debt per borrower to provide immediate relief.”
“The time is now,” Warren told Insider last Tuesday. “We know what the problem is: student loan debt is holding back tens of millions of people across this country. People who can’t buy homes, people who can’t buy cars, people who can’t start small businesses. We need to cancel that student loan debt, not only for those people individually, but for our whole economy.”
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Biden has never been a proponent for the sort of widescale debt cancellation advocated by the likes of Senators Warren and Bernie Sanders. If anything, he has been outright dismissive of the concept. In an interview with New York Times columnist David Brooks in May, Biden said: “The idea that you go to Penn and you’re paying a total of 70,000 bucks a year and the public should pay for that? I don’t agree.” Separately at a CNN town hall in February, Biden said that it didn’t make sense to cancel the loans “for people who have gone to Harvard and Yale and Penn.”
Whenever this talking point is offered, it makes me wonder how much of a fool our politicians take us for?
Some 44 million Americans collectively hold over $1.7 trillion in student debt. Not only are these numbers still growing, most of them have nothing to do with the Ivy League schools overflowing with wealthy people and huge endowments. Meanwhile, more than 30% of student loan borrowers are in default, late or have stopped making payments six years after graduation.
While the average white student loan borrower owes around $30,000 in student debt; the average Black borrower owes closer to $34,000. White borrowers pay back at faster rates than Black borrowers partly because of a racial pay gap. Black students borrow more money on average than their white peers for the same degrees and are more likely to default or face struggles paying back their debt. This does not even include private student loan debt which disproportionately impacted Black college graduates like me.
Biden has voiced support for pandemic-relief legislation that would forgive $10,000 in student-loan debt, but this is not the same thing as saying that he will take executive action to forgive anyone’s student loans. And this promise isn’t even included in the recently released budget request to Congress. Loan forgiveness was also absent from the president’s plans to rebuild the country’s infrastructure. If infrastructure can (and should) include national paid leave policy and subsidized child care, it can include student loan debt relief, too. It would serve similar benefits to all of us.
Experts may argue that it’s not “surprising” for Biden to have not included debt cancellation, but it would behoove Democrats to push Biden further on student loan debt.
To his credit, he has asked the Department of Education to produce a memo to find out if Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer is correct that legally Biden should be able to cancel student debt “with a pen as opposed to legislation.” (Warren has pointed to the Higher Education Act of 1965, which “recognizes the secretary of Education’s broad administrative authority to cancel federal student loan debt.”). Hopefully, the memo gives Biden further encouragement to do the right thing and cancel debt — ideally for more than $10,000, which would just make the interests on many of our federal loans shrug and laugh.
Many may have benefitted from missing payments since March 2020 due to the pandemic, but that is set to end later this year. Student loan debt will only become more topical as Americans have to start making payments again. He says he wants to break the racial inequities in America. This is a way to start.
I’m sick of this country being so stingy. Biden wants to show how the federal government can do well by its people. Show us.
The Biden-Harris administration has much to deal with, but that does not mean the White House should be ignoring a problem as impactful as the student loan debt crisis, or if nothing else, give the impression it is. Biden made a promise. It’s time to deliver.