Biden could try to deliver on sweeping student loan forgiveness weeks before election

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  • President Joe Biden could forgive the debt of millions of student loan borrowers weeks before voters decide between him and former President Donald Trump at the ballot box.
  • "The conflict between Democrats and Republicans over forgiving student debt will be in effect during the election," said higher education expert Mark Kantrowitz.

President Joe Biden could try to forgive the debt of millions of federal student loan borrowers just weeks before voters decide between him and former President Donald Trump at the ballot box in November.

In the Biden administration's Spring 2024 Unified Agenda, the U.S. Department of Education disclosed that it will publish its final rule on student loan relief sometime in October.

Due to the timeline of regulatory changes, that would normally mean the administration wouldn't be able to carry out its program until July 2025, said higher education expert Mark Kantrowitz. However, the department could act sooner simply by publishing a notice in the Federal Register, he noted.

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"I expect publication [of the rule] to occur in early October, so that the conflict between Democrats and Republicans over forgiving student debt will be in effect during the election," Kantrowitz said.

A spokesperson for the Education Department said the Biden administration has already made historic changes to "a broken student loan system."

"This administration is committed to providing relief to as many borrowers as possible as quickly as possible, and these regulatory efforts would help provide tens of millions more borrowers with financial breathing room," they said.

Loan forgiveness a sharp partisan issue

Conservatives typically question the fairness of forgiving the debt of those who've benefited from a higher education, and saddling taxpayers with the costs of doing so. Just over a third of Americans aged 25 and older have a bachelor's degree, according to an estimate by Kantrowitz.

"We are proud to stand with taxpayers in demanding the Biden administration abandon plans to force all Americans to take on the debt of a select few, something the Supreme Court has already deemed unconstitutional," said Ryan Walker, executive vice president of Heritage Action for America.

"Biden's latest debt transfer gimmick is an illegal, unfair election year stunt that is backfiring — and should cost him at the ballot box," Walker said.

Almost half of all voters — 48% — say canceling student debt is an important issue to them in the 2024 presidential and congressional elections, according to a recent survey from SocialSphere, a research and consulting firm. It polled 3,812 registered voters, including 2,601 Gen Z and millennial respondents, between March 15-19.

Additionally, 70% of Gen Z respondents said the action was "very" or "somewhat" important in the election, while 72% of Black voters surveyed and 68% of Hispanic voters believe the same.

Many young conservatives also support student loan cancellation, with 49% of Gen Z and millennial Republicans surveyed saying some or all outstanding education debt should be erased.

As president, Trump called for the elimination of the U.S. Department of Education's existing loan relief programs, including the popular Public Service Loan Forgiveness initiative. He also wanted to slash the department's budget, and his administration halted a regulation aimed at providing loan forgiveness to those defrauded by their schools.

Now, as he runs for president again, Trump seems poised to make even deeper cuts to financial aid programs for students. He has repeatedly attacked Biden's loan relief policies, and he said in a campaign video in late 2023 that he wants to close the Education Department altogether.

Republicans may try again to stop relief plan

Ever since the U.S. Supreme Court rejected Biden's first attempt at wide-scale loan cancellation last summer, his administration has been working on its do-over plan. While the Education Department attempted to make the relief more targeted this time in an effort to increase its chances of survival, up to 20 million people still stand to benefit.

For critics of broad student loan forgiveness, Biden's new plan looks a lot like his first.

After Biden touted his revised relief program, Missouri Attorney General Andrew Bailey, a Republican, wrote on X that the president "is trying to unabashedly eclipse the Constitution."

"See you in court," Bailey wrote.

Missouri was one of the six Republican-led states — along with Arkansas, Iowa, Kansas, Nebraska and South Carolina — to bring a lawsuit against Biden's first sweeping debt relief effort.

The red states argued that the president overstepped his authority, and that debt cancellation would hurt the bottom lines of lenders. The conservative Supreme Court justices agreed with them.

Once the Biden administration publishes its new student loan forgiveness plan in October, more legal challenges are inevitable, Kantrowitz said.

"Lawsuits seeking to block the final rule will follow soon after it is published," he said.

A recent Supreme Court ruling could also make it harder for Biden's revised plan to survive those broadsides.

The high court in late June overruled the so-called Chevron doctrine, a 40-year-old precedent that required judges to defer to a federal agency's interpretation of disputed laws. The 6-3 ruling, which split the conservative-majority court along ideological lines, is expected to undermine the federal government's regulatory power.

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