Student Debtors’ Faith in President Biden Is Tested

Years of promises of student loan forgiveness from the Biden administration ended in failure last month as the Supreme Court ruled against President Biden’s loan forgiveness plan in Biden v. Nebraska. The ruling was a sharp blow to students mired in debt, who had been eagerly anticipating relief.

The original program had the opportunity to cancel on average $10,000 per borrower, totaling around $430 billion in federal student loans and helping over 40 million Americans—and fully wiping out the debt for about half of them. The average American is responsible for $37,717 in federal student loan debt.

The debt relief story isn’t over. The Biden administration has already proposed another option for loan forgiveness: the income-driven repayment (IDR) program through the Department of Education. This program has been plagued with problems. Back in 2021, it was discovered that while millions were eligible for debt cancellation under the program, only 32 had actually had it happen. But since then, the Biden administration has made administrative changes and fixed part of the program; recently, the president announced over 800,000 Americans will have their loans canceled, for a running total of $116.6 billion in relief for 3.4 million borrowers.

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The Prospect interviewed several student debtors about the Court ruling and their thoughts on Biden’s backup plan. Many were disappointed and see these alternatives as empty promises, but others are still holding out hope. Whether Biden can get debt relief through may prove critical to youth turnout—which was key to his victory in 2020—in next year’s election.

Emma, who did not want her last name used for privacy reasons, is a recent graduate from the University of Southern California and took out loans specifically because of the debt relief promise. “If I hadn’t heard of this program, I wouldn’t have taken out extra loans. It feels like I was misled because I was.”

Kennedy Hunt, a 20-year-old student studying health science at the University of Missouri–Columbia, said she had no choice when it came to student loans. “To attend a university, I had to accept student loans in order to continue throughout school.” For Hunt, the loan forgiveness program would have eliminated all of her student debt.

This perception that a college degree is a necessity to get a good job ironically makes attending college an economic drag for those who borrow, as well as for the nation as a whole. A study from the University of Massachusetts Amherst estimated that “those with student debt in Massachusetts are experiencing a lifetime loss of wealth of approximately $132,000 per borrower, or $2.8 billion annually for the 867,000 borrowers in Massachusetts.” That loss of wealth, and the diversion of income to student loan payments, means less spending and activity across the rest of the economy in turn.

The Court’s ruling also exposed a political risk for the Biden administration. Bridgett Hennessy graduated from Belmont University in 2020 with a bachelor’s in music business and is working two jobs to pay off her debt. She emphasized how disappointing it was seeing candidates say what voters want to hear without follow-through. “It’s unfair to have faith in a candidate and later for it to seem like they are just saying what they need to say for votes and not carrying out their promises,” she said. “It’s more important than ever for President Biden to show that he can find a way to keep his campaign promise about canceling student loans.”

Emma, however, was less sanguine. She called the Biden administration “unprofessional” for making promises to students that they could not keep. And when it comes to any future plans for debt forgiveness, she said that “pledging to help another way to help students would be great, but this could merely be just another empty promise.”

On one level, it is unfair to pin the blame for the Court ruling on Biden. He didn’t appoint any of the members of the reactionary majority. But on another, frustration and cynicism are an inevitable reaction to a government that is unresponsive to the needs of the citizenry. The decision added to the disillusionment and distrust that many young people feel for the government today. Students felt like they were finally being seen and helped, only for six unelected de facto legislators to snatch $10,000 out of their pockets.

It remains to be seen whether this distrust translates to fewer young people voting for Biden or Democrats in general. But fairly or not, it is the party’s responsibility to confront the Court’s power, and prove the government can work. The best remedy for cynicism and despair about voting is for the president to keep his campaign promises.

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