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Feb. 17, 2021, 12:33 p.m. EST

Biden on cancelling $50,000 in student debt: ‘I will not make that happen’

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By Jillian Berman

President Joe Biden shot down a proposal to cancel $50,000 in student loan debt for every borrower Tuesday, despite pressure from leading Democratic lawmakers to do just that. 

During a CNN town hall Tuesday evening, an audience member told Biden that student debt is “crushing” her friends, family and fellow Americans.

“We need student loan forgiveness beyond the potential $10,000 your administration has proposed,” she said. “We need at least a $50,000 minimum. What will you do to make that happen?”

“I will not make that happen,” Biden responded. 

The exchange came roughly two weeks after Democratic Senators Chuck Schumer and Elizabeth Warren reintroduced a resolution calling on Biden to cancel up to $50,000 in student loan debt per borrower. Biden has proposed cancelling $10,000 in student debt as part of coronavirus relief. He’s expressed doubt about discharging more, and about whether he should be the one to do it instead of Congress. 

The White House seemed to be warming to the idea after Schumer, Warren and other lawmakers, including Ilhan Omar and Ayanna Pressley, who introduced a companion resolution in the House of Representatives, held a press event announcing their resolution earlier this month. 

That day, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki wrote in a tweet that “the President continues to support the cancelling of student debt to bring relief to millions of families.” She added that the administration was reviewing whether there were any steps it could take to cancel debt by executive action. 

During Tuesday’s town hall, Biden expressed skepticism about the idea of cancelling “the billions of dollars of debt for people who have gone to Harvard and Yale and Penn,” referring to Ivy League institutions.   

“Is that going to be forgiven rather than use that money to provide for early education for young children who come from disadvantaged circumstances?” he said. Biden then reiterated his support for free community college and free public four-year college for students from families earning $125,000 or less, proposals he touted on the campaign trail. 

Despite President Biden’s comments, Schumer and Warren vowed to “keep fighting” in a statement released Wednesday. The Senators said that they are confident the administration will ultimately agree with “leading legal experts who have concluded that the administration has broad authority to immediately deliver much-needed relief to millions of Americans.”

“An ocean of student loan debt is holding back 43 million borrowers and disproportionately weighing down Black and Brown Americans,” the Senators said, noting that student debt cancellation would help Black and Brown borrowers on whom student debt has had a disproportionate impact as well as borrowers who attended college but never received their degree.

The idea of student debt cancellation has been around for years, but gained new urgency after Biden was elected in November. Amid the coronavirus-induced downturn, student debt cancellation is a particularly attractive form of relief for progressives and mainstream Democrats because Biden and the executive branch can arguably do it themselves. 

Even among those who support debt cancellation there is debate about whether it should be done by executive action or through Congress. In addition, there’s a range of opinions among supporters about how much debt per borrower should be cancelled and whether there should be a cap on the income of borrowers receiving the relief. 

The idea of student-debt cancellation has its origins in Occupy Wall Street and though it’s gained traction over the past several years — particularly as the disproportionate impact of student debt on students of color have become apparent — it’s not without controversy. 

Critics worry it would be a boon to borrowers who have six-figure debts from graduate school, but also relatively high incomes. But supporters argue that it would improve racial equity. Proponents of student-debt cancellation have also said the student-loan system essentially amounts to a policy failure , and cancelling student debt is part of correcting it. 

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