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How President Biden decided to go big on student loan forgiveness

Amid appeals on Air Force One, exhortations to the first lady and a warning from Black leaders, White House aides argued for a plan that would serve racial justice

Biden announced $10,000 in relief for student loan borrowers making less than $125,000 annually, and an additional $10,000 for Pell Grant recipients. (Video: Michael Cadenhead/The Washington Post)

President Biden had doubts. In private conversations with White House staffers and allies in Congress this spring, he said he worried that voters who’d never gone to college could resent a move to cancel huge amounts of student debt, according to four Democratic officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity to reflect private talks. Biden also said that the federal government should not be bailing out Ivy League graduates, and that his children should not qualify for help, two of the officials said.

“He was nervous about how it would play with working-class people,” one senior Democrat said, recalling the president’s comments at a meeting this spring.

But a relentless campaign was pressing Biden to embrace dramatic action: There were private appeals aboard Air Force One, the courting of first lady Jill Biden, months of political and economic arguments from senior White House staffers, and warnings by Black lawmakers about the dangers of doing too little. In the end, Biden came around. He didn’t just wipe out up to $20,000 in debt for most borrowers, an amount many activists had thought unlikely. He also defended the notion with passion from the bully pulpit Wednesday.

After six repayment extensions, pressure from Congress and activists, the White House acts on federal student loans. (Video: Michael Cadenhead/The Washington Post)

The result is one of the most significant changes to American higher education policy in decades — and a new cornerstone of the president’s economic legacy. Biden’s decision will dramatically change the financial circumstances of tens of millions of Americans, fully erasing the student loans of roughly 20 million people. Its political wisdom will immediately be put to the test, with Republicans seizing on it as a key part of their 2022 midterm campaign message.

Who qualifies for Biden’s plan to cancel $10,000 in student debt?

Despite campaigning on student debt forgiveness, Biden wrestled for months with the correct course of action. The president overcame unease with a policy criticized as enriching more affluent Americans in part because of data presented by White House staffers showing that beneficiaries would be in the working and middle classes. The proposal was not only contentious with influential Democratic economists like former treasury secretary Larry Summers. It was also greeted initially with skepticism from Susan Rice, director of the White House Domestic Policy Council, although she later came to support it, according to three people familiar with the internal debates.

In a statement, White House Chief of Staff Ron Klain said Rice and Biden always supported taking significant action on student debt. But the scope of that policy remained in flux for most of the past year. Biden aides contemplated narrower policies that would exclude graduate students, extend forgiveness only to those who had attended public universities and limit forgiveness to those earning less than six figures. For weeks, the leading proposal would have canceled at most $10,000 per student.

Ultimately, however, Biden rejected those potential restrictions as too modest for the scale of America’s debt burden. He opted for something significantly more expansive, backing a private White House memo prepared for him in July and breaking with some allies from his centrist Senate career who were quick to distance themselves from the policy. The choice reflects in part Biden’s role as a coalitional politician: He became convinced that aggressive student debt relief would give Democrats a better chance of holding Congress in the fall through a badly needed boost from young voters and people of color. White House aides also privately marshaled evidence to show that the more targeted plan wouldn’t do much to erase racial disparities.

This story of how Biden came to embrace sweeping debt cancellation is based on more than two dozen interviews with White House officials, congressional lawmakers, Democratic pollsters, outside economic advisers and student debt activists, many of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe private talks.

“This was the issue that split the economic establishment in the Democratic Party, inside and outside the government,” said Michael Pierce, who served as a deputy assistant director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau during the Obama administration and is now at the Student Borrower Protection Center, which has advocated for debt cancellation. “But the president decided to go big.”

Calculate how much of your student loan debt can be forgiven

Warren’s allies reshape the Democratic Party

Biden was a late convert to the cause of student debt relief. The idea first emerged out of Occupy Wall Street and the left fringe following the 2008 financial crisis. For years, only a handful of lawmakers backed the concept. Democrats broadly agreed on the need to rein in college tuition, and the Obama administration backed various proposals — such as expanding Pell Grants, a form of federal financial aid mostly used by low-income students — aimed at lowering the price of higher education. But retroactive forgiveness of extant student debt was anathema in mainstream Democratic policy circles, where the party’s economists viewed it as a radical step with little precedent.

That began to change because of the work of a group of activists — many of whom were heavily indebted — backed by Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.). Supporters of a “debt jubilee” argued that reforming tuition would do little for the graduates already saddled with mountains of debt and afflicted by a job market that was weak for years after the recession. Seeking to harness that frustration, Warren and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) unveiled aggressive student debt cancellation planks in their 2020 presidential campaigns.

Aiming to unify the Democratic Party after the bruising 2020 primary, Biden endorsed the cancellation of at least $10,000 in debt per borrower after he won the nomination. When he took office, Warren allies secured key administration posts in economic and education policy: Julie Morgan, a Warren aide who developed the legal rationale for debt relief, became a deputy undersecretary at the Education Department. Richard Cordray, a former Warren adviser at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, was appointed the chief operating officer in the Office of Federal Student Aid. Bharat Ramamurti, Warren’s 2020 head of economic policy, joined the White House National Economic Council as deputy director.

Ramamurti in particular would later prove crucial in persuading Biden to get behind debt cancellation amid skepticism from other parts of the administration, as part of a team led with Rice and other senior White House officials Carmel Martin and Brian Deese.

“Working with the Biden transition to get key people throughout the White House and in places like the Department of Education set the stage for many allies to be in the room as this was being discussed,” said Adam Green, a Warren ally.

Who has student loan debt in America?

But these forces did not stand unopposed. Democrats’ thin Senate majority made it impossible to pass $10,000 in debt forgiveness through Congress. For more than a year, high inflation has curbed the president’s approval, and critics argued that hundreds of billions in debt forgiveness could lead beneficiaries to spend more money, further lifting prices. Negotiations with Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) over the party’s domestic policy agenda proved to be another hurdle, with senior Democrats wary throughout the summer of upsetting the lawmaker. Democratic pollsters presented the administration with evidence from focus groups that suggested voters who had paid off their loans would be upset by significant loan forgiveness.

Publicly, Biden himself held to the $10,000 line. “I’m prepared to write off a $10,000 debt, but not 50,” he said, later adding: “My daughter went to Tulane University and then got a master’s at Penn. She graduated $103,000 in debt … I don’t think anybody should have to pay for that.”

The concerns were not only political. Career staffers at the Education Department thought they were being asked to take on too much at once and would struggle to accomplish it all. Centrist Democrats worried the plan would be too generous to Americans not in need of help. As rumors swirled of potential debt cancellation, Sen. Michael F. Bennet (D-Colo.) argued on the Senate floor that relief should be targeted more directly to the lowest earners. Bennet later told senior White House officials that loan relief could do too much to help affluent Americans, one person familiar with the matter said. Bennet aired similar criticisms publicly on Wednesday after the White House released its plan.

Biden also faced blowback from prominent Democratic economists — particularly Summers — who had defended the president’s “Build Back Better” agenda after initially criticizing the White House’s pandemic relief plan last year for its $1.9 trillion price tag. Biden has frequently emphasized that the Inflation Reduction Act would reduce the federal deficit, but projections from budget analysts showed student debt relief would erase some of those fiscal gains.

“During BBB, there were a lot of policies people on the center left knew were irresponsible but did not want to criticize because they wanted to be team players,” said Ben Ritz, director of the Center for Funding America’s Future at the Progressive Policy Institute, alluding to complaints about expensive and controversial proposals. Now, he said, opponents are unwilling to be silent about their objections to Biden’s student loan plans. “The centrist Democrats are largely in alignment that this was a mistake.”

These warnings appeared to limit the ambition of the White House’s loan forgiveness plan. But that was before a crucial meeting with Black lawmakers this summer.

Black leaders push Biden, who changes course

Shortly after The Washington Post reported in May that the White House might cancel $10,000 in student debt per borrower, a group of Black House Democrats met privately over Zoom with senior White House economic officials.

Rice, director of the Domestic Policy Council, and Deese, head of the White House National Economic Council, listened as members of the Congressional Black Caucus argued that the measure was insufficient. Led by Rep. Joyce Beatty (D-Ohio), the caucus chair, the lawmakers said Biden needed to help people of color, who helped elect him. The White House had already suffered defeats on voting rights and more funding for historically Black colleges and universities, key priorities for Black lawmakers. House Majority Whip James E. Clyburn (D-S.C.), a key Biden ally, was among the Black lawmakers calling for canceling up to $50,000 in student debt per borrower.

The legislators made clear they wouldn’t give Biden political cover if he wiped out only $10,000 per borrower. The NAACP made an even stronger statement. Its president, Derrick Johnson, said $10,000 in forgiveness amounted to “pouring a bucket of ice water on a forest fire.”

“We’ve been building this coalition and movement for the last two years, pushing President Biden to be responsive to the movement that elected him,” said Rep. Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.), who attended that meeting, held the week of May 30, along with Democratic Reps. Robert C. “Bobby” Scott (Va.) and Maxine Waters (Calif.).

Top Democratic lawmakers also lobbied Biden personally at every turn. On May 17, as they flew back to Washington from the funeral for the victims of the Buffalo supermarket massacre, Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) told Biden that student debt cancellation was the right move politically and morally. On a separate ride aboard Air Force One in July, Warren also pressed Biden to be aggressive. Some House Democrats, meanwhile, worked to reassure Jill Biden, a community college English teacher, that student debt cancellation would not imperil the president’s push for making community college free, a top priority of the first lady.

Within the White House, economic officials had begun arguing that President Biden could address the Black Caucus’s concerns by doubling the amount of forgiveness for recipients of Pell Grants. Biden aides produced evidence that canceling only $10,000 per borrower would do little to close the racial wealth gap. And while the Supreme Court might strike down a measure that targeted the loans held by Black Americans, some advocates argued Pell Grants were a reasonably good way to reach borrowers of color. (The Education Department released a legal opinion Wednesday saying it has the legal authority to cancel student debt.)

“Given how concentrated Black families are at the lower end of the income or wealth distribution, we are more likely to be the recipients of a policy, like Pell, that serves low-income or wealth-poor households,” said Fenaba R. Addo, an associate professor of public policy at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

What the student loan payment pause has meant to Black women

A disproportionate number of Pell Grant recipients attend minority-serving and historically Black institutions, many of which lack the financial resources to provide generous aid, leaving students to borrow at high rates to cover the cost, said Addo, co-author of the forthcoming “A Dream Defaulted: The Student Loan Crisis Among Black Borrowers.” Those same schools had hoped to benefit from provisions in Build Back Better to lower the cost of attendance and invest in their ailing facilities. While the cancellation plan is no substitute, it could capture a significant number of their current and former students.

Political experts also presented senior White House officials with polling showing both that a majority of Americans support limited debt forgiveness and that such a move could help Democrats with young voters in November. Sen. Raphael G. Warnock (D-Ga.), facing a tough reelection bid this fall, also pressed the political upside of an expansive effort.

“This is a motivator for young people, which is important in terms of the election, though that’s not why he did it,” said John Anzalone, Biden’s pollster. “It’s a huge issue for young people — the support levels for them are in the high 60s.”

Under this mounting pressure, the more modest proposals gave way. In July, senior White House officials sent a memo to the president that recommended the plan to cancel up to $20,000 for Pell Grant recipients and $10,000 for other borrowers. Graduate students and attendees of private colleges were included.

Republicans have fiercely denounced the cancellation policy as a giveaway to rich college graduates and an insult to Americans who saved to pay back their loans, citing the criticisms of Democratic economists like Summers and former Obama aide Jason Furman.

“My advice is going to be to simply call it an effort to buy votes,” said former House speaker Newt Gingrich, who helped engineer the GOP’s congressional takeover in 1994. “You have to ask yourself: What are these people thinking?”

Biden, however, demonstrated Wednesday that he is willing to defend his new policy push with visceral emotion. “The outrage over helping working people with student loans,” Biden said, “I think is just simply wrong.”

Marianna Sotomayor contributed to this report.

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