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Biden Can Still Cancel Student Debt — Not Just Up to $20,000, But All of It

I won’t be paying my student loan debt back and neither should you — here’s why.

Maddy Clifford burns a slip of paper representing her debt in front of the Department of Education as part of the Debt Collective Day of Action in April 2022.

I’m over $120,000 in student loan debt, but I’ve stopped lamenting. In fact, I’ve never felt more empowered. I won’t be paying my student loan debt back and neither should you.

Here’s why: Not only should college be free, it actually used to be free in some states. The student debt crisis isn’t about the personal failings of 44 million people who dreamed of advancing their lives through education; it’s about bad policy. Labeling student loan debt as illegitimate refocuses our attention on these fundamental policy problems. What we need to do is fund free, quality public education for everyone. And we need to cancel student debt — all of it.

Over his long political career, Joe Biden played a role in making that bad policy. He helped pass legislation that made it harder for student debtors to discharge through bankruptcy. And after decades of complicity, a movement of organized debtors pushed him to campaign on the promise that would only begin to remedy the harm he helped cause. In August, when Biden finally set forth a plan to make a small dent in the crisis of student debt by canceling up to $20,000 for borrowers who make under $125,000 a year, his approval ratings went up. Sadly, the Biden administration fumbled the ball and now this relief, which tens of millions of people are counting on, is in danger. The administration cannot expect millions of people to pay back debts that the president himself said were canceled — and, importantly, that the president still has the ability to cancel.

You heard that right: Biden can still cancel student debt — not just up to $20,000, but all of it. Though the president’s current relief plan has been blocked by various Republican judges, the Department of Education can sidestep this problem by using a different authority, the one granted by the 1965 Higher Education Act to cancel federal student loans.

Biden initially used the Higher Education Relief Opportunities For Students (HEROES) Act of 2003 to cancel up to $20,000 of debt. The problem is, by means testing the relief, the White House created a bunch of unnecessary bureaucracy, including an application that took over six weeks to unveil (and cost the government over $100 million to make). This opened up room for conservatives to find plaintiffs and line their cases up with ideological judges eager to strike debt relief down. As a result, millions of people who filled out the application (many of them young voters who turned out in record numbers during the midterms) might not get the help the president promised them — a disaster for the Democrats if they want to maintain their edge with young voters. This is Biden’s chance to make amends for bungling the roll out of his debt cancellation plan over the last few months. And although a pause on student loan debt repayment is a step in the right direction, the courts are now more conservative than they’ve been in almost a century, which means we cannot expect a fair ruling on student debt relief. The Biden administration needs to act expeditiously.

Those who say this can’t be done fail to realize it’s already been done, just for the wealthy. To put it into perspective, Paycheck Protection Program loans have only existed since 2020 and 80 percent have been forgiven. Most of that relief went to rich people and corporations with the means to pay it back. It is glaringly obvious that student debtors deserve a fighting chance for a financial future. So, what is Joe Biden waiting for?

In April, I found myself burning a slip of paper representing my debt in front of the Department of Education, surrounded by hundreds of others in the same boat. The purpose was clear: This was a debt jubilee, a moment of joyful rebellion, a chance to collectively dispel the shame associated with owing the Department of Education, a department that has acted like a predatory lender. My debt once felt like an anchor dragging me down into an endless pit but, after that day, it became even more powerful connective tissue, tethering me to millions of other people. And if you’re struggling too — if you can’t afford college, if you went into default, if you made student loan payments but can’t seem to make a dent in your balance, even if you’re debt-free but understand the ripples of suffering the crisis has created — you should join our union and work to demand Joe Biden make all student loan debt disappear. He can do it today.

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