Progressive groups are vowing to raise the heat on President Biden to cancel student debt, a priority issue for a number of Democratic lawmakers including Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.).
It’s an issue that Biden has failed to deliver on so far, say the groups. Biden has shot down calls to immediately cancel up to $50,000 in student loans and instead supports $10,000 in debt forgiveness.
Nearly 100 days into a term that has generally been applauded by progressives, the groups say Biden needs to make student debt forgiveness a bigger priority in the next 100 days.
“This is one of the areas where progressives aren’t going to take no for an answer at the end of the day,” said Adam Green, co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee (PCCC).
He suggested that while there is peace between the White House and the left so far, that could change if people are disappointed on the student debt issue.
“So far there has been a complete lack of civil war within the party and almost complete unity for pushing big bold items like the $1.9 billion rescue plan across the finish line,” he said. “We want to be in the trenches together, it feels really good to be there.”
Other voices on the issue say it’s not enough to cut student debt by $10,000.
“Fifty thousand is the compromise of what President Biden can do right now through executive action. It’s confusing why President Biden hasn’t done this knowing it’s exactly what our economy needs,” said Ross Floyd, organizing director at Student Action, a group that supports free college and the full cancellation of student debt.
Schumer has pushed Biden on the issue and argues that it’s harder to tackle student debt through legislation than it is for Biden to act through executive order. Biden has punted to Congress, calling for lawmakers to present legislation on the issue.
Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.) last week introduced legislation that would make community college tuition free and four-year public colleges free for families making up to $125,000 annually.
Bipartisan legislation from Sens. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) would tackle student loan debt by allowing low-income students to pay for college-related expenses through a college-matched savings program.
The PCCC has called for Biden to put a student loan debt provision into the American Families Plan, the second part of Biden’s infrastructure package that is expected to be unveiled in his speech to Congress on Wednesday.
“It’s inconsistent to say Congress should handle canceling student debt without the White House putting canceling student debt into the Build Back Better bills that they’re putting before Congress. That just doesn’t make sense and would signal a lack of commitment to the cancellation of student debt issue,” Green said.
The White House has said no decision has been made on if the president can take unilateral action to cancel some student loan debt but earlier this month requested information from Education Secretary Miguel Cardona on his legal authority.
Advocates argue that Biden has authority to cancel student loan debt under the Higher Education Act of 1965, which gave the Education secretary authority to back student loans.
“If we aren’t across the finish line or close to across the finish line by the 200-day mark, I think there will be a lot more pressure on the White House,” Green said.
Progressives have a long list of other policies they want to see Biden prioritize over the next 100 days, including passing the pro-union PRO Act and tackling the climate change crisis.
Another progressive priority, Biden’s proposal to raise the minimum wage to $15, was taken out of the $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief proposal after the Senate parliamentarian said it could not be included as part of a bill passed through budget reconciliation.
The PCCC and civil rights advocacy nonprofit Color of Change plan to hold a virtual event on May 1, on national college decision day, to highlight people’s stories about the impact of their student loan debt.
Activists also argue that the White House needs to focus on student loan debt as a racial justice issue.
“It’s really important to PCCC to not only relieve these Americans of their debt but also help close the racial wealth gap,” said Manju Bangalore, student debt campaign organizer at PCCC.
Black families are more likely to borrow at higher rates, and the average Black person who borrowed still owes 95 percent of their debt after 20 years, according to data from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).
The group said the average white person who borrowed has paid off 94 percent of their debt after 20 years. The ACLU also supports Biden canceling $50,000 in student debt per borrower.
“While millions of Americans are impacted by the student debt crisis, this debt burden falls heaviest on Black people—especially Black women. Canceling student debt would help close the racial wealth gap and secure financial stability and economic mobility for Black communities, while addressing this debt crisis for millions more,” said Rakim Brooks, ACLU senior campaign strategist.
Republicans have pushed back on canceling student loan debt, arguing that a blanket policy is not the right answer. Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) recently called the plan to forgive $50,000 in federal student loan debt “incredibly, fundamentally unfair.”
Other Republicans argue it could have unintended consequences by contributing to inflation or that it could cause people to take on irresponsible levels of debt.
Watchdog group Accountable.US is taking a positive outlook on Biden’s stance on student loan debt, comparing it to former President Trump’s stance. The Trump administration, in a last-minute action in January, released a memo that said the Education secretary cannot provide blanket or mass cancellation of student loans.
“The positive steps the Biden administration is taking towards greater college affordability and accessibility is a welcome change after the previous administration’s fixation with protecting bad actors in the student loan servicer and for-profit college industries that fuel the student debt crisis,” Accountable.US President Kyle Herrig told The Hill.