The student debt crisis has been a long-simmering problem in American society. With over $1.7 trillion in student loan debt, we need to find bigger bipartisan solutions to make getting a college degree easier and more affordable. But, in the meantime, considerable harm is being done that could throw off the delicate balance in federal student lending and how colleges can treat students as consumers. Over the past four years, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos and others in the Trump Administration have slowly but surely dismantled Obama-era protections for students and student loan borrowers, worsening the already-dire student debt crisis.
The incoming Biden-Harris administration has shown a commitment to affordable education beyond high school throughout their campaign, supporting policies like doubling Pell Grants and a free community college proposal. The administration will also bring a fresh perspective on higher education, as Vice President-elect Harris will be the first vice president who is a graduate of an HBCU, and Dr. Jill Biden will be the first First Lady who is a professor, having taught full-time at a community college while her husband was vice president.
Over the next four years, the incoming administration has the opportunity for far-reaching reform of higher education in partnership with a new Congress. But, the severity of the economic challenges that accompany the public health crisis of the pandemic mean that immediate action is needed to put in place common-sense solutions to urgent problems. Even in the first hundred days, President Biden can take strong executive action to roll back Secretary DeVos’s rollbacks, restore access for low-income students, hold for-profit colleges and loan servicers to higher standards, and strengthen protections for student borrowers.
The following are recommendations for executive action that President Biden and the incoming secretary of education, Miguel Cardona, can take in the first hundred days of their administration - or even in the first week through executive action.
Extend the existing student loan repayment freeze through at least the end of the pandemic, plus a period of economic recovery and return to lower unemployment. Congress originally put all federally-held student loans into forbearance in March, and the Trump Administration has used executive actions to extend the freeze twice. A recent survey revealed that 77% of students do not feel secure resuming their repayment until June. Restarting federal student loan repayment too soon will cause enormous logistical challenges and could throw thousands of borrowers into delinquency, hurting their good credit and progress towards paying off their debt.
Appoint a new CFPB director who will provide meaningful oversight of the student loan servicing industry, particularly private lenders, and other financial products marketed to students and student loan borrowers. The current Trump-appointed CFPB director Kathy Kraninger has stopped lawsuits against troublesome loan servicers, and has not adequately punished servicers to ensure they don’t wrong student loan borrowers again.
Fix public service loan forgiveness (PSLF), by accepting applicants who have been making payments for 10 years to employers and who originally qualified -- as of now, less than two percent of applicants have gotten their loans forgiven. The Department can accept these applicants based on their settlement and compromise authority granted by the Higher Education Act, which allows ED to grant relief to borrowers who have not received relief because of mistakes the Department has made.
Withdraw revisions to administrative rules that regulate for-profit institutions, and restore a higher level of oversight and quality control to ensure student financial success. Betsy Devos tried to undo, among other things, the borrower defense and gainful employment rules, which were written under good faith negotiations between industry stakeholders and student advocates during the Obama era. These rules help students identify quality programs and, when defrauded by their school, get their bad debts erased.
Forgive the debts of students in bankruptcy, giving relief to the borrowers who were already struggling to pay back their debts before the pandemic, and whose financial well-being is even more precarious. Student debt affects every generation, not only young people. To make matters worse, student loans are one of the only forms of debt that borrowers continue to carry even after declaring bankruptcy. By forgiving debts for those in bankruptcy, debts which lenders consider uncollectable, the Biden Administration would allow borrowers to achieve a more secure financial future for themselves and their families.