I was paying off school loans while I was the secretary of education under Obama. Here’s why Biden needs to cancel student debt.
2/23/2022 | John B. King
Like many other advocates for protecting students’ interests and advancing education equity, I am very encouraged by the Biden Education Department’s recent decision to cancel $415 million in student debt for victims of predatory for-profit college fraud.
This action builds on the Biden Administration’s important work to clear a backlog of debt forgiveness claims ignored by the Trump Administration, whose Secretary of Education Betsy Devos actually put former executives of predatory for-profit colleges in charge of the nation’s higher education policy.
President Biden faces another critical crossroads in higher education policy this spring that will define our economic future and his legacy.
While delaying the restart of federal student loan payments until May 1 provided important temporary relief, a dark cloud still hangs over millions of borrowers.
Today, 42 million Americans hold over $1.6 trillion in federal student loan debt.
All too often, the crushing weight of student debt prevents people from even considering buying a home, beginning a family, or starting a new business. This is indisputably a crisis.
Thankfully, it is one that has a realistic solution that can transform millions of lives.
President Biden should use his executive authority to unilaterally cancel student debt for each borrower.
And to ensure this crisis doesn’t happen again, Congress must join President Biden in making college debt-free.
Canceling student loan debt and ensuring access to higher education for all Americans is more than simply a winning political issue — it’s about our values.
My family’s entire trajectory was changed by higher education. Just three generations ago, my great-grandfather was enslaved in a cabin in Gaithersburg, Maryland — only 25 miles from where my family lives today.
A generation later, my grandmother became one of the first Black women to graduate from the University of Maryland Eastern Shore, and I went on to serve as US secretary of education under our nation’s first Black president.
I was still paying off my own student loans while serving as US Secretary of Education for President Obama.
It made me extremely proud when, during my tenure, the Department of Education forgave loans held by students whose colleges deceived them or shut down abruptly.
We launched a special unit charged with cracking down on the predatory for-profit colleges that so often take advantage of students of color, low-income students, and veterans. We created a process for debt cancelation — as federal law allows — so student loan borrowers could restart their lives. It is this process the Biden Administration has used to cancel $2 billion of student debt for nearly 110,000 student borrowers so far. We also launched initiatives during the Obama Administration to make it easier for borrowers to repay loans within their monthly budgets.
While I celebrate what we accomplished together on behalf of students during the Obama administration, I recognize that the situation today is much more dire. As we recover from COVID-19 and the related economic crisis, we cannot afford to simply go back to “normal.”
Back in 1980, the Pell Grant program accounted for 77% of the cost of attending a public 4-year college. Today, it covers less than a third of the cost, even as tuition rates continue to skyrocket.
It’s no wonder that student debt has grown so dramatically, and the pandemic made things worse by forcing many colleges to slash budgets. After generations of states divesting from public higher education and Congress under-investing in the federal Pell Grant program, we have pushed the full cost of higher education squarely on the shoulders of students and families.
Canceling student debt is an equity-focused idea.
The student debt crisis falls disproportionately on students and families of color — and both reflects and exacerbates the racial wealth gap.
According to Brookings, the average Black college student owes over $52,000 four years after graduation while the average white college graduate owes about $28,000. A recent report from The Education Trust, Jim Crow Debt: How Black Borrowers Experience Student Loans, shares the experiences of Black college graduates who see student debt as an extraordinary obstacle to realizing their aspirations and even describe their student loans as a “life sentence.”
Some have argued that it would be odd to cancel student debt retroactively without solving the problem going forward.
They are right. This must be a New Deal moment where we take even more bold actions to tackle systemic challenges.
There should be a national commitment to debt-free college for students from low- and middle-income backgrounds, and truly affordable college for all.
Furthermore, a traditional four-year college should not be the only option for students. Free community college, as the Biden Administration has proposed, is an absolute economic imperative.
Debt cancelation has support from officials in both parties.
Republican A. Wayne Johnson, former Federal Student Aid chief, proposed canceling up to $50,000 of student debt for each borrower. So did Democratic US Senators Elizabeth Warren and Chuck Schumer.
During the Obama Administration, then Vice President Biden would remark: “Don’t tell me what you value, show me your budget, and I’ll tell you what you value.”
Yet over generations, our states have increased investment at a faster rate in detrimental policies like mass incarceration than in higher education.
If we are truly going to create an economy that breaks down barriers to opportunity and lifts everyone up, then President Biden must heed his own wise advice and act now to cancel student debt.