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Louis Jacobson
By Louis Jacobson January 11, 2022

Biden pauses student loan payments, but hasn’t pursued large-scale forgiveness

As a presidential candidate, Joe Biden promised to forgive undergraduate student debt for people earning up to $125,000.

In office, Biden has paused student loan payments during the coronavirus pandemic, and he has accelerated loan forgiveness under more limited programs. But he has not pursued across-the-board loan forgiveness, either through legislation in Congress or by the less legally certain course of executive action.

The pandemic-related pause

Biden extended an existing pause on student loan payments prompted by the pandemic several times, most recently through May 1, 2022. This means that people with student loan balances don't have to make payments. However, the loans are not forgiven, either in whole or in part.

Limited forms of debt forgiveness

The administration has accelerated the use of existing student-debt forgiveness programs. 

These include a program to cancel student debts for people with permanent disabilities; for those who attended schools that defrauded them or have since shut their doors; and those that have worked in public-service jobs for 10 years and have paid down their loans steadily since then.

The Education Department estimated that it has discharged or is working to discharge about $12.7 billion in student debt for more than 638,000 borrowers, according to NPR

That's not insignificant, but it's a small fraction of the $1.6 trillion in federal student loans outstanding and the 46 million Americans who hold them.

Might there be an across-the-board forgiveness?

The continuation of the pandemic pause has bought Biden some time before he has to decide on whether to pursue across-the-board student loan forgiveness. However, Biden's actions so far do not suggest that this proposal is high on his agenda. 

He has declined to include a broad-based student loan forgiveness in the major legislative vehicle for safety-net proposals, the Build Back Better bill, which has been passed by the House and is awaiting action in the Senate.

Republican opposition would make it a hard sell in Congress. Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., the second-ranking Republican in the chamber, called large-scale loan forgiveness "incredibly, fundamentally unfair" to those who already repaid their debts.

Some forgiveness advocates have urged Biden to use executive action as a way to work around opposition in Congress. But even Democratic officials have expressed doubts about this course.

"The president can't do it," House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said in July. "That's not even a discussion."

Biden himself echoed that in a February 2021 town hall, when he said he was doubtful that an executive action would pass legal muster. "I don't think I have the authority," Biden said.

All in all, Biden has "cancelled debt for those who already should have had it under existing policies, but has yet to create policies to expand debt cancellation to a broad level," said Jalil Mustaffa Bishop, an assistant professor in Villanova University who has studied the issue.

There's still time for Biden to start pursuing broad-based student-loan forgiveness, but his actions so far do not suggest he will. We rate the promise Stalled.

Our Sources

White House, "Statement by President Joe Biden Extending the Pause on Student Loan Repayment an Additional 90 Days," Dec. 22, 2021

Education Department, "Biden-Harris Administration Extends Student Loan Pause Through May 1, 2022," Dec. 22, 2021

John Thune, "Thune: Loan Forgiveness is Not a Solution for the Student Debt Problem," Feb. 24, 2021

NPR, "Biden pledged to forgive $10,000 in student loan debt. Here's what he's done so far," Dec. 7, 2021

CNBC, "Pelosi says Biden doesn't have power to cancel student debt," July 28, 2021

Politico, "To forgive or not to forgive: Biden's student loan discord," Jan. 5, 2022

Washington Post, "Biden's student-debt pause invigorates the push for loan forgiveness," Dec. 30, 2021

Email interview with Jalil Mustaffa Bishop, assistant professor in Villanova University's department of education and counseling, Jan. 7, 2022

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