Student loan advocates are planning their next moves as President Biden’s student debt relief plan hangs in the balance.
During the Supreme Court oral arguments for the proposal last week, the majority-conservative justices seemed skeptical of the administration’s case, fueling panic for some borrowers.
But activists, who were always going to try to move beyond Biden’s up-to-$20,000 forgiveness, say they are “optimistic” about the outcome of the case and already have plans to support borrowers following a potential greenlight ruling from the court.
“There’s been so much chat about Plan B, and I think that’s important. Just as importantly, we need a Plan A,” Braxton Brewington, press secretary for the Debt Collective, told The Hill.
The most important step if the Supreme Court were in fact to let Biden’s plan proceed is to getting borrowers the debt relief as soon as possible, an issue where Brewington said the administration stumbled at the beginning.
“The problem with delivering student debt relief wasn’t the legal authority. It was the swiftness in which it was carried out, which was not swift at all. And so we’ve been saying, you know, should the Supreme Court uphold student debt relief, the Biden administration needs to discharge people’s debts as soon as possible,” he said.
Before the plan was halted by the courts, more than 25 million borrowers had filled out the application for relief, and 16 million had their applications fully approved and their information sent to their loan servicers to get the debt discharged.
Cody Hounanian, executive director of Student Debt Crisis Center, said those who have already received approval should be the first to get the relief as they have been waiting for months after ticking all the right boxes.
“Step one, I think, is wiping the slate clean for those folks. And, related to that, continuing processing of all the applications that have been submitted, but haven’t been approved yet. So I think that those are the immediate first step that needs to be done,” Hounanian said.
Student debt relief advocates gather outside the Supreme Court on Capitol Hill in Washington on Feb. 28 as the court heard arguments over President Biden’s student debt relief plan. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)
The next step could be to lengthen the application period for the relief since the plan was halted for so long by the courts
“If we get a ruling in June, and then we say that the application is going to close in December because they only had it open for like a year. Then we’ve dramatically shrunk the timeline in which people can apply for relief so that time needs to get extended,” Brewington said.
Extending the timeline for the application would help those who had difficulties getting their applications in the first time around, an issue Hounanian says should be “step 2” if the plan is declared legal.
“Step two is to make sure that everyone who is eligible for this really, actually gets it, and that’s going to require outreach, education, and you know, a strong message to the public that this is legal, that they will receive relief and that they should apply as soon as possible,” Hounanian said.
Although a win at the Supreme Court would be a huge victory for student loan advocates, they are already looking beyond it.
Student loan advocates felt Biden’s plan was a step in the right direction, but many of their goals have been overshadowed since the court battles over the caps on relief.
“Millions of people, you know, even though $10,000 or $20,000 is like lowering their balance, it’s not actually lowering their monthly payment, which is why we’re still pushing — well, why would we still be pushing — for cancellation. I think that’s really important, so we’ll be pushing for more cancellations,” Brewington said.
Activists and high-profile Democratic politicians including Sen. Elizabeth Warren (Mass.) previously advocated for much more student debt relief, as high as $50,000 a borrower, before Biden announced his plan in August 2022.
Some activists and politicians go so far as to say all student loans should be forgiven.
Biden has previously said he would not forgive higher amounts of student debt, and that he didn’t believe he would have the authority to do so as president.
“I do think in this moment of economic pain and strain that we should be eliminating interest on the debts that are accumulated, No. 1. And No. 2, I’m prepared to write off the $10,000 debt, but not [$50,000],” Biden said on the campaign trail in 2021, adding he doesn’t believe it could be done through executive action.
President Biden speaks about student loan relief at Delaware State University on Oct. 21 in Dover, Del. (AP Photo/Laurence Kesterson)
Paco Fabian, communications and campaigns director for Our Revolution, is hopeful a big legal victory could change the administration’s mind on how far the authority of executive orders can go.
“A win at the Supreme Court will certainly sell the administration, and hopefully they’ll continue charging forward to provide folks with real relief,” Fabian said.
And the demands for activists don’t stop with just debt cancellation. Their calls also include extending the pandemic-era student loan pause until the end of Biden’s presidency, despite the president previously saying he wouldn’t extend it again.
Brewington says until Congress decides to tackle the root causes of high student debt such as the cost of college, Biden should be considering pausing payments for longer.
“I think we’ll sort of, until that changes, continue to push Biden on executive action, who in our ideal world would say, ‘I’m canceling student debt,’ you know, or ‘I’m keeping student loan payments paused for the rest of my administration,’ ” Brewington said.
Biden said student loan payments will resume 60 days after the Supreme Court makes its ruling on his debt relief plan or, at the latest, 60 days after June 30.
However, the president has previously said the student loan pause would not be extended past 2022 but then backtracked that cutoff.
At the end of the day, student loan advocates recognize the root problem for student loans is the cost of college.
Once there are student debt discharges, Brewington said it be the “right moment” to talk about “funding tuition-free college.
“I don’t want folks to think that we have forgotten about addressing the root cause, which is the cost of college,” Hounanian said, adding addressing the issue is “a little more complex”
He talked about past work advocating for the College for All Act and free community college but that it is a difficult issue to get bipartisan support for some of their suggested reforms.
“I would like to think that it’s nonpartisan, unfortunately, we don’t have many allies on the other side of the aisle with more conservative political beliefs that are standing with us right now. But I still remain optimistic,” Hounanian said.