“We’re here to demand responsive legislation to the needs of the movement who delivered this victory,” Pressley said. “To finally center our most vulnerable and marginalized communities, to demand a recovery that finally invests in people because that’s what student debt cancellation is — it’s an investment in the people.”
“Fundamentally, it’s about economic relief and equity,” said Representative Adams of North Carolina. “President Biden now has the opportunity to build a stronger foundation of social and economic mobility for all.”
Omar, who’s made student debt a central issue of her congressional tenure, cited the Higher Education Act as the legal authority for a move by Biden, calling it “an important first step, but we can and must go bolder.” She added, “I have been encouraged by the steps President Biden has taken to tackle the student debt crisis and hope he uses his executive authority to move towards full student debt cancellation.”
Representative Jones of New York also pointed out the disparity between the cost of a college education and wage stagnation. He said that Biden’s move to extend a pause on student loan payments and interest accrual was proof of his legal authority to go further.
“This president must do the things that he ran on,” Jones said. “The president, of course, can do this with the stroke of a pen. And this is exactly what we expect him to do and that is what the American people expect from him.”
What has Biden said about student debt?
On the 2020 campaign trail, he said he supported forgiving “a minimum of $10,000/person” in federal student loans and, according to the Wall Street Journal, he called for forgiving student debt from public college tuition for borrowers with income of less than $125,000, plus student debt owed by anyone who could prove a for-profit college defrauded them. Back in November, not long after he’d been projected to win the election, Biden said student loan debt relief should be done “immediately.”
But, two weeks into Biden’s term, questions remain about whether the president would take a step like the one lawmakers called for Thursday. In December, as the Washington Post reported, he told a group of journalists, “it’s arguable that the president may have the executive power to forgive up to $50,000 in student debt. … Well, I think that’s pretty questionable. I’m unsure of that. I’d be unlikely to do that.”
The law at the center of the question is the Higher Education Act (HEA). If there’s a legal foundation for the president to take action, Democrats appear to believe it’s in the HEA. The Harvard Law School’s Legal Services Center evaluated a proposal from Warren based on executive authority around debt in the HEA, arguing, “Congress has granted the Secretary a more specific and unrestricted authority to create and to cancel or modify debt owed under federal student loan programs in the Higher Education Act (HEA) itself. That provision empowers the Secretary to execute the broad debt cancellation plan you have proposed.”
On inauguration day, in one of his first acts as president, Biden extended a pause on student loan payments until October 2021. Democratic lawmakers now are ramping up pressure on the Biden administration to exercise further authority. And as Teen Vogue Economic Security Project fellow Jacqui Germain laid out in January, the situation in D.C. looks like the ball is in Biden’s court on making a move on student debt.