Nearly 80,000 borrowers in Southwestern Pennsylvania lost their opportunity for student loan forgiveness Friday, when the U.S. Supreme Court struck down President Joe Biden’s plan to wipe away billions in federal debt.
The plan, which the Biden administration announced in August 2022, could’ve forgiven up to $20,000 in federal student loan debt for more than 40 million individual borrowers. The plan was estimated to cost more than $400 billion over 30 years.
Borrowers were able to apply for forgiveness from October to November 2022, when the Biden administration stopped taking applications after a federal judge in Texas deemed the plan unlawful. About two-thirds of eligible people in Pennsylvania’s 12th congressional district, which includes Pittsburgh and parts of Allegheny and Westmoreland counties, applied during that time.
Monthly payments on federal student loans are set to resume in October. It’s a bill that millions haven’t paid for more than three years, since the federal government first suspended payments due to the pandemic. The federal Department of Education had said the number of borrowers in default could spike significantly if the court were to strike down Biden’s plan.
The ruling “threatens the financial security of millions of low-income Americans who are struggling with unaffordable student loan debt,” said Abby Shafroth, co-director of advocacy at the National Consumer Law Center, in a press release.
This spring, PublicSource spoke with several Pittsburgh college students and graduates about what student loan forgiveness would mean for them. One borrower said the weight of his debt seemed to be “slowing everything down,” and that his debt partly led him to put off his dream of going to nursing school.
First-generation college student Paloma Del Toro was counting on having all of her expected student loan debt wiped away under Biden’s plan. Without relief, she said she may need to move back home to Illinois and pursue employment in a less-desired field.
“I don’t really have much to fall back on,” said Del Toro, who attends Carnegie Mellon University. Her family doesn’t “have that type of money to be paying these loans right off the bat when we graduate.”
The court ruled that the forgiveness plan lacked explicit authorization from Congress and was, therefore, an overstep of presidential power. Lawyers for the Biden administration had argued that the 2003 Higher Education Relief Opportunities for Students Act, or HEROES Act, permitted such debt relief. The court considered two cases on the issue, dismissing one and splitting 6-3 on the other, with the three liberal justices dissenting.
“‘Can the Secretary use his powers to abolish $430 billion in student loans, completely canceling loan balances for 20 million borrowers, as a pandemic winds down to its end?’ We can’t believe the answer would be yes,” Chief Justice John Roberts wrote in the majority opinion. “Congress did not unanimously pass the HEROES Act with such power in mind.”
In her dissent, Justice Elena Kagan wrote that the HEROES Act allowed the Secretary of Education to “give the relief that was needed, in the form he deemed most appropriate, to counteract the effects of a national emergency on borrowers’ capacity to repay. That may have been a good idea, or it may have been a bad idea. Either way, it was what Congress said,” Kagan wrote.
“In every respect, the Court today exceeds its proper, limited role in our Nation’s governance,” she wrote.
Biden announced Friday afternoon that his administration will pursue student loan debt relief through the Higher Education Act of 1965. The law will allow the education secretary to waive or release loans under certain circumstances, Biden said. It’s unclear how many borrowers would benefit from the move.
“This new path is legally sound. It’s going to take longer,” the president said. “We’re not going to waste any time on this.”
He also said that his administration is creating a 12-month “on-ramp repayment program” to alleviate borrowers’ financial burdens when payments resume. Monthly payments will still be due, but borrowers will not face default or see their credit harmed if they miss payments during this period, Biden said.
The Education Trust, an advocacy organization focused on removing racial and economic barriers in the American education system, said the ruling will particularly harm Black borrowers, who carry more debt on average than their white peers.
“The Supreme Court failed to help millions impacted by what some borrowers call the ‘Jim Crow’ student loan system in America,” said Denise Forte, the organization’s president and CEO. “Often, the result is a lifetime debt sentence for students of color and students from low-income backgrounds, who only want a chance to better their lot in life and live the American dream.”
Advocates say the federal Education Department can pursue student loan forgiveness through other means, including the 1965 Higher Education Act, according to NBC News.
“Fortunately, the opinion on debt relief is narrow,” Shafroth, of the National Consumer Law Center, said. “It does not prevent the Administration from pursuing debt relief under authority granted by other laws.
“Every option must be on the table to ensure that Americans with student loan debt can get the relief they need now. There is no time to wait.”
Emma Folts covers higher education at PublicSource, in partnership with Open Campus. She can be reached at email@example.com.
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However, only about .1% of the people who read our stories contribute to our work financially. Our newsroom depends on the generosity of readers like yourself to make our high-quality local journalism possible, and the costs of the resources it takes to produce it have been rising, so each member means a lot to us.
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