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A man wears a sticker showing his college debt during an Occupy Wall Street rally against the high cost of college tuitions on April 25, 2012 in New York City. (Photo: Don Emmert/AFP/Getty Images)

'We Need Full Abolition,' Advocates Say as Biden Reviews Authority to Cancel Student Debt

The president has signaled he supports forgiving $10,000 per borrower but Democrats and activists are pressing him to make it $50,000 or more.

Jessica Corbett

As a key White House official revealed Thursday that President Joe Biden has requested information on his authority to cancel federal student loan debt, progressive lawmakers and activists doubled down on their calls for the administration to go far beyond the $10,000 per borrower plan that he has previously floated.

White House Chief of Staff Ron Klain said in a wide-ranging video interview with Ryan Lizza of Politico that Biden has asked Education Secretary Miguel Cardona, "who's just been on the job a few weeks, once he got on the job to have his department prepare a memo on the president's legal authority."

"Hopefully we'll see that in the next few weeks. And then he'll look at that legal authority, he'll look at the policy issues around that, and he'll make a decision," Klain added. "He hasn't made a decision on that, either way, in fact, he hasn't yet gotten the memos that he needs to start to focus on that decision."

Lawmakers—led by Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), and Rep. Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.)—and over 325 advocacy groups have argued that Biden should cancel up to $50,000 in debt per borrower. As Warren said in February: "President Biden can take the single most effective executive action available to provide a massive stimulus to our economy, help narrow the racial wealth gap, and lift this impossible burden off of tens of millions of families."

Those comments came at an event to reintroduce a "visionary" plan that Warren and Schumer unveiled last September, anticipating a possible Biden presidency. They have repeatedly pointed out that Congress has given the secretary of education authority to cancel student debt under section 432(a) of the Higher Education Act of 1965.

Warren and Pressley joined with Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey and an impacted borrower Thursday to urge the Biden administration to cancel student debt.

"Today we're all here to call on President Bident to do right by the movement that elected him and to use his executive authority to cancel $50,000 in federal student loan debt," said Pressley. "We find ourselves in a moment of crises—of public health and economic crises... crises of racial injustice and white supremacy... and a growing student debt crisis which disproportionately impacts Black and Brown borrowers."

"So what this moment calls for is that we are bold and that we are intentional in our policymaking at every level of government to confront these overlapping crises head-on and to set ourselves on a pathway to a just and equitable recovery," she said, emphasizing that student debt is a racial and economic justice issue.

Invoking one of his campaign promises, Pressley added that "if President Biden is serious about closing the racial wealth gap, if President Biden seeks to build back better, then he must use his executive authority to issue broad-based, across-the-board student debt cancellation."

As Common Dreams reported earlier this year—shortly after Biden said at a CNN town hall that he "will not" cancel $50,000 in student loan debt—recent polling from Data for Progress shows that 54% of likely voters think he should use his executive authority to cancel that much debt for federal borrowers, compared with just 37% who disagree.

Last month, Cardona announced he was rolling back a widely condemned policy implemented by his predecessor and moving to provide full debt relief for around 72,000 students who were defrauded by private for-profit colleges. 

"Organizing works," the Debt Collective, which is urging Biden to forgive all outstanding student debt, said in response to that announcement. "We can't stop now. We can cancel all $1.8 trillion."

The collective responded similarly on Thursday to Klain's interview, saying: "This is good. That means there is movement. However, we need more than $50,000 of cancellation—we need full abolition."

"The more student debt we cancel the more we stimulate the economy," the collective tweeted. "Artificially capping student loan cancellation at $50k is hindering our own stimulus."


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