WASHINGTON — At the beginning of April, White House chief of staff Ron Klain gave proponents of student debt cancellation a glimmer of hope when he announced President Joe Biden had asked the Education Department to prepare a memo examining his legal authority to wipe out debt through executive action.
“Hopefully we’ll see that in the next few weeks,” Klain said at the time. “And then he’ll look at that legal authority, he’ll look at the policy issues around that, and then he’ll make a decision. He hasn’t made a decision on that either way. In fact, he hasn’t yet gotten the memos that he needs to start to focus on that decision.”
The White House has tied Biden’s policy approach to student debt relief to the Education Department’s memo, but nearly two months since Klain’s comments, it is unclear when the department’s review will be completed. Advocates for student debt cancellation say they have been left in the dark on the timeline of the memo and are growing increasingly concerned that the administration is not willing to engage seriously on the issue.
“We’re all of the belief that when someone says ‘a few weeks,’ it’s definitely not two months. It’s taking too long,” said Braxton Brewington, a spokesperson for the Debt Collective, a union of debtors who have advocated for widespread student loan cancellation.
“We believe that it is a stall tactic,” Brewington added.
When asked for an update on the timeline of the memo, a White House official said: “The president believes that student loans help finance a path to opportunity, not become a lifelong burden, and so White House staff continues to work with agency staff to explore debt relief action that can be taken administratively.”
The Department of Education was also unable to provide a status of the review.
“We are working closely with the Department of Justice and the White House as quickly as possible to review all options regarding student debt cancellation,” said a spokesperson for the Education Department. The memo is being prepared with the Justice Department, with the Education Department taking the lead.
“We haven’t been told it’s not happening, but we are trying to investigate,” Natalia Abrams, executive director of Student Debt Crisis, said.
“We want to have a timeline,” she added. “There’s a frustration among student loan borrowers, for sure.”
It is unclear if the public will be notified once the review is completed or if the memo will ever be made public.
The lack of transparency from the Biden administration, advocates say, has been compounded by the looming Sept. 30 deadline when student loan forbearance is set to expire. Proponents of debt cancellation are urging the White House to take action before then and, at the very least, communicate clearly with borrowers about the administration’s intended policies so no one is caught off guard if payments are ultimately due again this fall.
“Many borrowers, especially newer student loan borrowers who never went into repayment, almost expect [the payment pause] to be extended,” Abrams said. “They need to notify borrowers as soon as possible.”
Neither the White House nor the Education Department has said whether the administration is seriously considering extending the forbearance. Earlier this month, Education Secretary Miguel Cardona said extending the pause was “not out of the question, but at this point it’s Sept. 30.”
Persis Yu, director of the National Consumer Law Center’s Student Loan Borrower Assistance Project, said the Education Department’s memo was “overdue” and called for more “transparency and communication in this process.”
“Our hope is that the policymakers will coordinate and communicate with borrower advocacy groups, and I think that is a big frustration. And a lot of folks don’t feel like they’re being heard in this process,” Yu said.
In March 2020, Congress passed the CARES Act, which paused federal student loan payments through September 2020 and kept interest rates at 0 percent for the roughly 42 million federal borrowers in an effort to alleviate the economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic.
Then, President Donald Trump took executive action to extend the student loan payment deferral through January 2021, and Biden on his first day in office signed an executive order extending the payment pause through Sept. 30, 2021.
As the Sept. 30 date draws near, advocates say they are planning to ramp up pressure on the White House to engage more meaningfully with calls from Democrats — led by Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York and Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts — for Biden to cancel $50,000 of federal student debt via executive action.
Democrats and other proponents of canceling student debt argue that the president has the authority to cancel student loans under the Higher Education Act of 1965, which gave the education secretary broad authority over student loans. Biden has already exercised that authority, proponents of debt cancellation argue, by pausing student loan payments during the coronavirus pandemic. Several lawyers and legal scholars have written analyses in support of that view.
Biden has said he supports signing a bill passed by Congress eliminating $10,000 in student debt, but he has expressed significant reservations about taking executive action on debt cancellation. He has also indicated that he thinks $50,000 is too generous and would primarily benefit people with expensive private college degrees.
The Federal Reserve estimates that in the third quarter of 2020, Americans owed more than $1.7 trillion in student loans. Studies show that students of color are more likely to take on student debt and disproportionately struggle to pay it back. The highest default rates are among students who attended for-profit institutions.
“This is something the president can do,” Warren said during a Washington Post event earlier this month. “Leader Schumer and I are pushing hard to try to get it done.”