BOSTON (State House News Service) – President Joe Biden’s announcement Wednesday that the federal government will absolve millions of low- and middle-income Americans of up to $20,000 in college student loan debt each got mixed reviews from elected Democrats in Massachusetts and was knocked by Gov. Charlie Baker as unfair.
Fulfilling a 2020 campaign promise with the 2022 midterms on the horizon, Biden said Wednesday that the U.S. Department of Education will provide up to $20,000 in debt cancellation to Pell Grant recipients with loans held by the Department of Education, and up to $10,000 in debt cancellation to non-Pell Grant recipients.
To be eligible for the relief, borrowers must have an individual income less than $125,000, or $250,000 for married couples, according to the White House. The president also extended the pause on federal student loan repayments that has been in effect since March 2020 “one final time” through Dec. 31, 2022.
U.S. Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Ed Markey praised the announcement with Markey saying that “canceling billions of dollars in student debt will have a positive effect that will reverberate throughout our economy” and Warren saying it means that “[m]illions of working people will have a chance to build a more secure economic future.”
“Today is a day of joy and relief because President Biden has canceled a big chunk of student debt for as many as 43 million Americans. The President has taken a powerful step to help rebuild the middle class,” Warren said. She added, “Student loan debt has held millions of Americans back from starting a family, buying a home, saving for retirement, or creating their own businesses. With the President’s action, millions of workers — educators; municipal employees; auto workers; food and retail workers; flight attendants; medical workers; care workers; and many more — will breathe a little easier knowing this burden will be lifted.”
Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley praised the work of a coalition that has pressured Biden to act on loan relief.
“I thank President Biden for heeding our calls with this decisive action and for delivering this life-changing and long-overdue relief for the people,” Pressley said. “I look forward to continuing to partner with his Administration to address the college affordability crisis head on. Our work continues.”
There are more than 45 million people who cumulatively owe at least $1.6 trillion in federal student loan debt, the White House said, a burden that falls disproportionately on Black borrowers. The typical undergraduate student with loans graduates with almost $25,000 in debt, but almost 33 percent of borrowers have loan debt but no degree, according to the U.S. Department of Education.
The average student debt load for a Massachusetts college graduate in 2019-20 was $33,457, eighth-highest nationally, according to the Institute for College Access & Success.
Gov. Baker told reporters at a morning stop in Plainville that he doesn’t think Biden’s approach is fair or “the right thing to do.” He pointed to efforts his administration has undertaken in recent years and said he thinks that early college programs that allow high school students to earn college credits and tuition-free community college programs “are better than a random forgiveness of some amount to some group of students.”
“What if you’re somebody who spent a whole ton of money on gear or equipment or developing certification criteria or qualifications through some other program to get a credential that you paid for? You get nothing from this. I don’t think this is the right thing to do, I don’t think this is the right way to go about it, no,” Baker said. “I don’t think it’s fair to a lot of the people who spent their own money or their family’s money or borrowed money to get a degree or credential through some other means so that they were able to improve themselves.”
And the Republican governor was not alone in thinking that what Biden announced was not the most fair way of dealing with the debt problem. U.S. Rep. Jake Auchincloss, a Democrat who participated in the same Plainville event as Baker, told reporters that he would not have taken the same approach as Biden.
“I’d like to see us really focus on those interventions to expand access to career development for all people in this country. And to the degree that we’re focusing on debt cancellation, I would have focused on medical debt relief. That is more progressive in that it helps those with the lowest income and the least amount of wealth disproportionately, and it’s more fair,” Auchincloss said. “We have seen that medical debt is a prime driver of bankruptcy in this country and we need to help those who have had to take on debt through no fault of their own because they got sick, both in terms of their credit reporting and in terms of their actual debt load. I would have prioritized medical debt.”
Kaiser Health News reported earlier this month that an estimated 100 million Americans — or 41 percent of all adults in the U.S. — have health care debt, compared to around 45 million who have student loan debt. A Stanford University economist last year estimated that the total amount of outstanding medical debt in America is at least $140 billion.
An NPR/Ipsos poll released in June found that while slightly more than half of the country supported debt forgiveness of the type that Biden announced Wednesday (55 percent), an overwhelming majority (82 percent) held positions similar to Baker and Auchincloss and said they would rather see the federal government prioritize making college more affordable rather than forgiving existing debt.