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Opinion President Biden, it’s time to cancel student debt

Rep. Ro Khanna speaks at a Student Loan Forgiveness rally last week near the White House. (Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images)
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Ro Khanna, a Democrat, represents California’s 17th Congressional District in the U.S. House of Representatives.

Student loan debt is personal to me.

When I was younger, I took out more than $100,000 in student loans to pay for higher education. After graduation, I struggled to make monthly payments and had to take a year forbearance, digging myself deeper into debt. I have repaid my loans thanks to promising career opportunities and good fortune, but I understand the anxiety student loan debt causes. I don’t want others who haven’t gotten the same breaks I did to struggle and feel that the American Dream is out of reach. Millions of Americans who took out student loans and paid them off feel the same way I do. We are not a nation of Scrooges.

Now, as a member of Congress, I’ve spoken to young people across the country and asked them what Democrats can do to make their lives tangibly better. From San Jose to West Virginia, I hear the same answer: Cancel student debt. President Biden has the authority to do this with the stroke of a pen for borrowers struggling to make ends meet. The more forgiveness, the better.

It’s time to do it, Mr. President.

Canceling student loan debt for working- and middle-class Americans is the right thing to do. No one should be prevented from pursuing higher education because they can’t afford the financial burden it poses. Furthermore, it makes economic sense: Relief from student debt would help young people buy homes, build wealth and otherwise grow our economy.

Student loan debt was a defining issue during the 2020 U.S. presidential election. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) released a plan to cancel debt up to $50,000 for those making $100,000 or less, and would help 95 percent of borrowers, and I’m an original co-sponsor of the House bill that is based on this plan. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) said he’d cancel it all. Even then-candidate Joe Biden told participants at a town hall in Miami, “I’m going to make sure that everybody in this generation gets $10,000 knocked off of their student debt.”

As president, Biden has the power to cancel student loan debt — in fact he has already used this authority to do so, but only for a small group of Americans. Using the Higher Education Act of 1965, Biden eliminated nearly $20 billion in student loans for select borrowers defrauded by for-profit colleges, individuals with permanent disabilities and those working in public service. He also paused federal student loan repayments and forgave interest payments on these loans to relieve the burden during the pandemic.

These are vital steps for our nation, but this is a moment that demands bold action. If he can suspend interest payments, he can forgive the principal. If he can cancel student debt for some, then he can cancel it for all those in need.

Forgiving student loan debt is progressive economic policy, not regressive, as critics wrongly maintain. According to an analysis by the Roosevelt Institute, the people who would benefit most from debt cancellation are those with the least amount of wealth. This relief would be particularly meaningful for the millions of Americans who never received a college degree but did incur student debt — and who are more than four times as likely as their graduating counterparts to default on it.

Student loan forgiveness is also essential to overcome the racial wealth gap. Black students are more likely than their White counterparts to take out student loans and struggle to pay them off. The Roosevelt Institute analysis found that canceling up to $50,000 in student loan debt would immediately increase the wealth of Black Americans by 40 percent.

Another myth is that Americans without college degrees will have to pay for student debt relief. This is simply not true. To avoid adding to the national debt, we could pay for student debt cancellation with Biden’s proposed billionaire tax and institute a transaction tax on Wall Street speculation. As for implementation, the Education Department has demonstrated capability to deliver Pell Grants and other federal student aid targeted by household income.

If Democrats want to regain the trust of people across the country both young and old, rural and urban, and across lines of race, gender and class, we need to deliver on the things that materially improve people’s lives. I’m encouraged that Biden has committed to make a decision by Aug. 31 on student loan cancellation and has told my colleagues he is inclined to do something.

The best way to start the new school year for everyone saddled with crushing student loans would be for Biden to free them of this burden.