Joe Biden's campaign website for the 2020 presidential election stated that a President Biden would "forgive a minimum of $10,000/person of federal student loans," which would erase all of the student debt for 15 million of the nearly 45 million American borrowers.
Nearly six months into his presidency, that promise remains unfulfilled.
The Biden administration has made some targeted moves to cancel debt for certain borrowers, and the pandemic payment pause on federally-backed debt payments will lead to roughly $100 billion in total student loan forgiveness between March 2020 and September 2021.
“Many Americans voted for President Biden because of his promise to provide direct relief to those struggling — and now is the time to act," U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) told Yahoo Finance in a statement. "I will continue pushing the administration to tackle the student debt crisis by cancelling up to 50K in student debt because it is critical to our economic recovery.”
The White House did not respond to requests for comment.
Biden backed May 2020 plan to 'immediately provide $10,000 in debt relief'
Then-candidate Biden called for student loan forgiveness several times during 2020.
On March 22, days before Congress passed the $2.2 trillion Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act stimulus bill, Biden tweeted that the federal government "should forgive a minimum of $10,000/person of federal student loans."
In May 2020, Biden told The Late Show with Stephen Colbert that he backed a proposal to "immediately provide $10,000 in debt relief as stimulus right now — right now for students."
In October 2020, Biden told CNN town hall questioner that "I'm gonna make sure that everybody in this generation gets $10,000 knocked off their student debt as we try to get out of this God-awful pandemic."
The pitch was popular: Two national surveys from December 2020 showed that more than half of Americans across the political spectrum supported student loan forgiveness.
"[Biden] was very explicit about planning to cancel at least $10,000 during the campaign, and he made the campaign promise in several places, him physically, but also within his campaign materials," Persis Yu, director of the National Consumer Law Center's Student Loan Borrower Assistance Project, told Yahoo Finance. "It was a prominent piece of his campaign promises, not one of the buried on page 45 of all the documents ... and it was certainly one that student loan borrowers are very eager for him to fulfill."
After he won the election, however, Biden's tone shifted.
In December 2020, President-elect Biden cast doubt on broad student loan forgiveness when he told a meeting of news columnists that the Democratic argument to cancel student debt through executive action was "pretty questionable," adding: "I’m unsure of that. I’d be unlikely to do that.”
In February 2021, when a member of the audience in a CNN town hall asked President Biden if he would enact $50,000 in student loan forgiveness, Biden replied: "I will not make that happen."
“It depends on whether or not you go to a private university or public university,” Biden explained. “It depends on the idea that I say to a community, ‘I’m going to forgive the debt, the billions of dollars of debt, for people who have gone to Harvard and Yale and Penn.’”
In May 2021, during an interview with The New York Times, Biden reiterated his reluctance to cancel debt: “The idea that you go to Penn and you’re paying a total of 70,000 bucks a year and the public should pay for that? I don’t agree."
'They believe that they've been promised'
The basic argument for the president to being able to forgive student debt through executive action, as detailed by the Legal Services Center of Harvard Law School in a letter to Sen. Warren, is that the Education Secretary has the power “to cancel existing student loan debt under a distinct statutory authority — the authority to modify existing loans found in 20 U.S.C. § 1082(a)(4).”
In March 2020, White House Chief of Staff Ron Klain told Politico that President Biden had asked Education Secretary Miguel Cardona to compile a memo on whether the president has the legal authority to forgive $50,000 in student loan debt through executive order.
"Biden is overdue — canceling student debt is overdue," Thomas Gokey, organizer of the Debt Collective, an activist group, told Yahoo Finance. "The time to have done it was the day one of the administration."
The Education Department has not responded to requests for comment on the memo, though ED recently hired Toby Merrill, who founded the Project on Predatory Student Lending at Harvard Law School and co-authored the legal analysis provided to Warren.
In any case, ED officials are now reportedly recommending that the White House at least extend the pandemic payment pause through January 2022.
The stakes are high: Experts, advocates, and prominent Democrats stressed that some level of student loan forgiveness would be a crucial move before the pandemic payment pause ends.
"It would be prudent to make this decision before restarting payments," said Yu, who works with many low-income borrowers. "It doesn't make sense to make people start paying and then canceling their loans... [and] if we can clear the books of some of the debt, it could make turning the system back on a lot easier."
Yu added that a major federal loan servicer dropping out of the loan program at the end of the year presented a "recipe for disaster" since the government will need to transition roughly 8.5 million borrowers to another servicer.
"Why send out bills and notices to millions of people, and then just turn around and say, 'Just kidding, that's not true,'?" Seth Frotman, executive director of the Student Borrower Protection Center and a former student-loan ombudsman at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, told Yahoo Finance. "It [would] cause mass confusion and disappointment for borrowers."
Warren previously told Yahoo Finance that if the payment pause is lifted without cancellation, "we are facing a student loan time bomb that when it explodes could throw millions of families over a financial cliff."
"There's a lot of anxiety that folks are feeling," Yu said. "They believe that they've been promised some amount of debt cancellation. And for a lot of the folks we work with, it would make a huge difference in their lives to not have this burden going forward."
Aarthi is a reporter for Yahoo Finance. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @aarthiswami.