Is Biden Abandoning His Campaign Promise to Cancel Student Debt?

Biden promised to cancel $10,000 in student debt if he became president. It hasn't happened yet.


One in eight Americans has student loan debt. It’ss a staggering $1.5 trillion burden that falls disproportionately on women, people of color, and those with non-lucrative careers that nevertheless require extensive education—teachers, public defenders, healthcare workers, and the like. Millennials in particular — who have been so burdened by debt they’ve been unable to grow wealth and are struggling to make ends meet for their kids — have felt this crush.

And despite saying during the campaign that everyone deserved to have at least $10,000 in student debt forgiven, President Biden has failed so far to act decisively on the issue. As a result, the prospects of large-scale student debt forgiveness are murkier than ever.

The latest discouraging sign for student borrowers is the release last Friday of the latest Unified Agenda of Regulatory and Deregulatory Actions. The dry but consequential biannual document “reports on the actions administrative agencies plan to issue in the near and long term,” basically the rules they are planning on setting using executive authority (i.e. without Congressional action). Where student debt is mentioned in the Department of Education section, it’s in limited scenarios and without much detail, with promises to improve public service loan forgiveness, forgiveness for those permanently disabled, and other highly specific categories of borrowers.

These rules would affect only a tiny fraction of those who hold student debt in the United States and look a lot like a renege on a campaign promise. That’s simply not going to cut it for the increasingly loud—and increasingly powerful—voices calling for large-scale student debt forgiveness. They mirror the biggest action Biden has taken on the issue to date, forgiveness for over a million borrowers in a specific federal program.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and colleagues Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, and Bob Menendez are among the leading Democrats calling on Biden to cancel student debt for all borrowers with the stroke of a pen. Debt Collective, the nation’s only debtors union, even drew up an exact order he could sign as part of its effort to have all federal student loan debt canceled.

But Biden maintains that he isn’t sure he has that legal authority, despite the fact that the Trump administration declared that student loan payments could be paused during the pandemic without Democratic objection.

Instead, Biden recently asked the Secretary of Education to produce a legal memo on the matter. It feels like a stall tactic, particularly given remarks in which the president falsely suggested that student debt forgiveness amounts to an underserved handout to rich Ivy Leaguers and not a deeply progressive, wildly popular action that would directly benefit the people the Democratic Party has always claimed to represent.

Biden has also held fast to limiting any potential forgiveness of $10,000, not the $50,000 favored by most of the other federal officials from his party, nor the complete abolition called for by groups like the Debt Collective. Given that that is already a disappointment to many, his lack of action on that $10,000 in forgiveness — when student debt payments are set to resume in September

If you were looking for a way to limit the effectiveness of a policy in a misguided effort to appear responsible, Biden’s course of action would be a pretty good way to do it. It’s a sign that despite the surprisingly aggressive policy proposals in the first five-plus months of the administration, student debt — the thing that holds millennials, now working parents struggling to make ends meet — will remain a massive problem. Unless Biden somehow changes his tune.