Biden bid to ease student debt unveiled in key swing state
President Joe Biden delivers remarks on student debt at Madison College, April 8, 2024, in Madison, Wis. Evan Vucci/AP

WASHINGTON—What do you do if you’re Dr. Bukoya McCall-Robinson, an adjunct psychology professor in the Los Angeles Community College system with $586,500.91 in student loan debt hanging over your head?

Answer: You skimp and do without until the Biden administration’s SAVE student loan forgiveness program was implemented, by new federal rules this year, and you apply. And, McCall-Robinson told a White House-convened roundtable of teachers and two teachers union leaders, the debt is gone.

Biden’s student loan forgiveness plan, under new federal regulations for the SAVE program, thanks to the federal Higher Education Act, could aid up to 45 million student loan borrowers in select groups. All have one thing in common: They, like McCall-Robinson, are drowning in student loan debt.

McCall-Robinson, a bright student, started college—and took out her first student loan–at age 17. Now she’s 43. Until SAVE (Saving on A Valuable Education) came through, “The burden of this debt was enormous,” she says.

“No one would approve us for a home loan,” she adds. And in her private psychology practice, “financial strain is one of the top things leading to divorces,” she reports.

“Half a million dollars? This American dream has been a nightmare.”

“While Republican elected officials try every which way to block millions of their own constituents from receiving student debt cancellation, President Biden has vowed to use every tool available to cancel student debt for as many borrowers as possible, as quickly as possible,” an administration fact sheet on SAVE says.

The fact sheet touts the new forgiveness rules, and which groups of students and ex-students would be helped, and by how much.

That will expand the loan forgiveness program to young voters, and college students now surviving on loans—such as the tens of thousands of college students at the University of Wisconsin, in Madison, a key swing state in this year’s election. Biden unveiled SAVE in an April 8 speech there.

The groups of students and former students and details of debt forgiveness include: Up to 5.5 million former students have already received $146 billion in student loan debt relief, including outright forgiveness of all outstanding loans they’ve been paying off for more than 20 years.

McCall-Robinson, the Los Angeles adjunct community college psychology professor, is among them.

Cutting monthly payments in half. Right now, student loan repayments can take up to 10% of a payer’s monthly discretionary income. Starting in July, that’s cut to 5%.

Biden’s plan “would fully eliminate accrued interest for 23 million borrowers, would cancel the full amount of student debt for over four million borrowers, and provide more than 10 million borrowers with at least $5,000 in debt relief or more,” the fact sheet says.

If the borrower’s balance grew due to unpaid interest even after they started paying the loans off, $20,000 would be canceled, regardless of income. “Low and middle-income borrowers enrolled in the SAVE plan or any other income-driven repayment plan would be eligible for the entire amount their balance has grown since entering repayment to be canceled,” the fact sheet adds.

Single borrowers who earn up to $120,000 yearly and couples who earn up to $240,000—figures that cover most borrowers—would be eligible for interest forgiveness.

Some qualify for a $0 monthly payment

Borrowers “with incomes less than $32,800 per year, or $67,500 for a family of four, will qualify for a $0 monthly payment. Currently more than half of “ the 4.5 million current “SAVE enrollees have $0 payments,” the White House fact sheet says. With “early forgiveness to those borrowing $12,000 or less…an estimated 85% of future community college borrowers will be debt-free within 10 years.”

Loans would be automatically canceled for borrowers under existing forgiveness programs, such as Public Service Loan Relief, but who have gotten tangled up in paperwork, been misinformed that they’re not eligible, or both. Another group with complete forgiveness: Former students left high and dry when their for-profit institutions—such as GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump’s diploma mill—went defunct.

The paperwork tangle and the bad advice was one complaint the teachers brought up to Neera Tamden, the White House official who hosted the April 1 roundtable with AFT President Randi Weingarten and NEA Vice President Princess Moss.

The teachers, from California, Tennessee, Los Angeles, and Florida, recommended the government spend money to train advisors who could help student loan forgiveness applicants navigate the maze.

“SAVE is a program that is doable and repayable,” Weingarten told the other roundtable participants, as tens of thousands of people tuned in to the Zoom session. Without it, she says, high school students thinking of going to college won’t, because they can’t see a way to escape the red ink.

Biden touted the SAVE program in his April 8 speech in Madison, Wisconsin.—not coincidentally home to the tens of thousands of University of Wisconsin students, who labor under student debt loads. Madison’s also a Democratic bastion in a key swing state.

The new loan forgiveness rules, lifting that load of red ink also appeals to the young voters Biden is courting in his re-election bid nationwide, and their parents and relatives. That’s because student loan debt, which has followed individuals for years, is among the top three financial drags on U.S. consumers. At $1.6 trillion, it even exceeds credit card and auto loan debt.

The preceding Republican Trump regime refused to cancel student loan debt until Congress forced a temporary debt repayment moratorium through laws passed to combat the financial smash of the coronavirus-caused economic depression. But that law lapsed months ago, as the Republican-led House refused to renew it. Its end forced the students and ex-students to resume repaying the debts.

Before the moratorium, the leading refusal to forgive student loans came from Trump’s anti-worker, anti-teacher, and anti-public-school Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. That  GOP big giver allowed the forgiveness of only 7,000 public service student loans in 2017. AFT sued to get DeVos to follow the law and forgive all loans that the program covered. Even after AFT won, DeVos dragged her heels

Congressional Republicans still refuse to forgive student loan debt. So did the Republican-named U.S. Supreme Court majority. Last year, the justices threw out a more wide-ranging student loan forgiveness program which Biden pushed. And Donald Trump, a rich builder’s son who didn’t need student loans when he skated through college and graduate business school, refuses to forgive student loan debt, too.

Trump’s hypocritical objection

Forgiving student loan debt is “very unfair to the millions and millions of people who paid their debt through hard work and diligence; very unfair,” Trump, someone who rarely pays his debts, told a campaign rally last year when he praised the High Court’s anti-forgiveness ruling. Congressional Republicans are even nastier.

“If President Biden spent half as much time working to address the root causes of our broken student loan system as he does peddling his illegal free college agenda, college costs would be lower, the student loan repayment process would be simpler, and students and families would be able to fill out” the financial aid form, squawked House Education and the Workforce Chair Rep. Virginia Foxx, N.C.

“Biden believes more government dependence means more votes come Election Day—and as a result—has focused his time and energy on harmful initiatives to bolster his ratings.”

And this year’s money bill for the Transportation Department, for the fiscal year ending September 30, bans student loan forgiveness from the Transportation Secretary, the Treasury Secretary, or the Attorney General for borrowers who use the money for undergraduate flight education and training.

By contrast, another roundtable participant, Dr. Elissa Wilson, Tennessee professor and Tennessee Education Association member, reported that 20 minutes after she applied for loan forgiveness, it came through.

Her monthly payment, of more than $1000, dropped to $300. “I’ve been telling everybody this is something they need to take advantage of.” For years, student loan debt “impaired my ability to purchase a home or new vehicles” to transport herself and her three children.

“And it takes an emotional toll. I lived so many years trying to pretend it wasn’t there. I’ve got my master’s now, and that emotional relief, too.

Biden hopes his plan will boost his election year chances since it moves in the direction of the popular plan he pushed in his 2020 campaign, a plan killed by the Supreme Court. The plan announced in Wisconsin this week would reduce the amount that 25 million borrowers still owe on their loans, and wipe away everything for four million other borrowers.

Biden says that college affordability is a key to the economic success of the country as a whole but he has been largely blocked by MAGA politicians and by the courts where those courts are controlled by them.

The plan he announced this week is an attempt to re-do much of what was blocked and get it through by means other than those he attempted the first time around. His first plan, the one that was blocked, attempted to wave $400 billion in student debt across the board for all categories of borrowers. It relied on the HEROES Act, which allowed the president to act under a national emergency, the COVID pandemic. Outrageously, the Supreme Court disagreed and killed the plan.

Biden’s new approach is very different. It targets individuals and different groups of borrowers instead of an overall across-the-board approach. The groups are:

  • 1)Those whose loans have ballooned because of out-of-control interest rates
  • 2) borrowers who have paid off a lot over many years or decades
  • 3) those with special economic hardship
  • 4) people who are entitled to existing relief for which they have not applied and
  • 5) People with loans from schools that have lost certification.

Because the new Biden approach is based on different laws it has a better chance of surviving right-wing challenges. Nothing in the new approach violates the standards put forward by the Supreme Court when it killed the first Biden plan. Of course, the best guarantee of getting the new plan through is to deliver a resounding defeat to all the MAGA forces in the November election, from the president on down to every single local lawmaker and judge.

CJ Atkins contributed material for this story.


Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Award-winning journalist Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of the union news service Press Associates Inc. (PAI). Known for his reporting skills, sharp wit, and voluminous knowledge of history, Mark is a compassionate interviewer but tough when going after big corporations and their billionaire owners.

John Wojcik
John Wojcik

John Wojcik is Editor-in-Chief of People's World. He joined the staff as Labor Editor in May 2007 after working as a union meat cutter in northern New Jersey. There, he served as a shop steward and a member of a UFCW contract negotiating committee. In the 1970s and '80s, he was a political action reporter for the Daily World, this newspaper's predecessor, and was active in electoral politics in Brooklyn, New York.