President Biden’s next move on student loans has been a mystery, with the White House not communicating with advocates and instead keeping stakeholders in the dark while the president decides whether to forgive student loans on a large scale.
Biden has said forgiving $10,000 in debt per borrower is on the table but keeps delaying making a final decision. Now, with the student loan pause ending next month and the midterm elections just a few months away, borrowers are unclear about what to expect.
“We have seen a shift in the desire from the White House to meet with advocates. If you’re not willing to meet with us at this point, you have to, at the very least, meet with borrowers,” said Natalia Abrams, president and founder of the Student Debt Crisis Center (SDCC).
The SDCC organized a petition this month to urge Biden to meet with borrowers before he makes a decision on cancellation. The petition, which has garnered more than 100,000 signatures, notes that it’s been more than a year since borrowers met with Education Secretary Miguel Cardona on the issue.
“We have been pushing to meet with the White House to discuss again why borrowers need to meet with the White House and have been met with a less than friendly, or neutral, response,” Abrams added.
White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said on Tuesday that Biden will make a decision on student loan payments but that she would “let him speak.”
Biden in April extended a pandemic moratorium on federal student loan payments and interest accrual until Aug. 31. Biden told reporters last week that “the end of August” is his timeline for making a decision.
That follows more than a year of the president saying he will make a decision on student loans, amid pressure from progressives and advocates for a big portion of student loans to be forgiven, ranging from $10,000 to $50,000 to total cancellation.
“I think it’s really important for the administration to directly hear from those who are most impacted by the weight that student debt has on their lives,” said Wisdom Cole, national director of the NAACP Youth and College Division.
“When the administration hears the stories from borrowers, from folks who are teachers, from folks who work in various labor forces, folks who worked on the front line during this pandemic, they will hear how the more cancellation that they do, the better they are able to set up a future for — not just for some borrowers but for all borrowers and all Americans,” he added.
The lack of communication with advocates became evident this spring, following the president extending the freeze. Groups say that the administration, since then, has kept them in the dark.
One advocate said that the White House and Vice President Harris’s office have “totally ignored” requests for meetings and have “ghosted” them. Meanwhile, they said they were “pawned off to other people” when they asked the Department of Education for a meeting with Cardona.
Another described the White House as “disinterested with taking a meeting” and “reluctant to meet with advocates.”
“Canceling student debt should be an easy win, and instead Biden is in danger of turning it into a massive failure mere weeks before midterm elections in which the future of democracy is at stake. Now is the time to go big and bold,” said Thomas Gokey, organizer with the Debt Collective.
He also argued that Biden needs to be meeting with borrowers before he makes his decision.
“The White House is playing with fire and risking everything. It is unforgivable political malpractice. The president should meet with student debtors, and quick,” he said.
Other White House officials have been mum when asked for updates on student loans, including top economic adviser Brian Deese, who on Tuesday said he didn’t have anything new to share. The White House didn’t respond to a request for comment on the lack of communication with activists on student loans.
Lawmakers, meanwhile, have had some engagement with the president during his decisionmaking process on student debt. Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Sen. Raphael Warnock (D-Ga.) met with Biden in May to push for forgiveness.
Borrowers are feeling discouraged and like their life is in limbo while they wait for news from the White House on student loans, advocates relayed from conversations with borrowers.
“Over the last three months, we’ve been playing this back-and-forth of whether there is going to be an announcement or not an announcement, and now that we are coming up on the deadline of payments turning back on, we need to see strong policy and an increase in the amount of debt the president needs to cancel,” said Cole of the NAACP, which has advocated for a minimum of $50,000 in forgiveness.
An Education Department spokesperson told The Hill this week that the administration is still assessing whether to extend the payment pause but that borrowers will be communicated with “directly” about the end of the freeze. The statement follows reporting that student loan servicing contractors have been told to not send billing statements.
Biden supported canceling at least $10,000 of federal student loan debt during his 2020 presidential campaign. In April, Biden said that a decision would be made “in the next couple of weeks.”
Advocates argue that the White House keeps other activists in the loop on other issues like, for example, gun violence prevention. There is also a growing uncertainly over who is making decisions related to debt cancellation, while the White House has named point people for other issues like domestic policy adviser Susan Rice for gun control.
“What other aides and experts in the room is the president trusting with this decision? That has become less clear over time,” said Cody Hounanian, executive director at the SDCC.
Activists, though, were encouraged by Biden’s decision in June to cancel billions in student debt for former Corinthian College students, which raised pressure on the White House to offer more extensive relief. Now, they await a final decision.
“People are anxious, voters are anxious, and the president owns a base of anxiety about payments that impacts people,” Cole said. “His own base, the base of voters who elected him into office, is anxious now, and we’re waiting on a decision.”