College students have been key allies in bolstering the fight to end the student debt crisis, joining the existing coalitions of borrowers who have been paying off their loans for years. Now, it looks like their activism is working. President Biden announced earlier this month that he is considering canceling some federal student debt. Student debt continues to impact more than 45 million Americans with a combined $1.7 trillion in debt, robbing retirees of their Social Security payments, workers of their wages, and students of their future.
This news from the White House is a major win on two fronts. First, before this announcement, the White House was investigating the president’s power to cancel student debt under the 1965 Higher Education Act. Experts, including those at Harvard Law School, have explored the matter in detail, concluding that the president has the unequivocal authority to cancel federal student debt, but it was unclear where the administration stood on the question. Biden’s announcement is therefore a huge win on the legal case on debt cancellation. Ultimately, the president’s authority to cancel all student debt is the most powerful tool Biden has to boost the economy, uplift families, and close the racial wealth gap. Even limited debt cancellation would set an important precedent.
Secondly, the White House’s announcement proves that the president can be moved on this issue. Student debt payments have been paused since March 2020, eligibility for forgiveness programs like the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program has been temporarily expanded, and student debt cancellation is firmly on the table. With it, student activists have helped push our nation and our president in the right direction on debt cancellation.
The Free the Degree coalition, which was started in February 2022, has seen explosive growth, with over 30 organizations nationwide joining the campaign, representing roughly 1.3 million college students in red and blue states alike. With help from the campaign, students at New Jersey’s Rutgers University–New Brunswick have circulated a letter pushing the White House to Double the Pell Grant and advance student debt cancellation, garnering support from leaders representing more than 450,000 students.
“Students must be involved in student debt advocacy because we are advocating for a secure financial future. More than ever, we see students who graduate put off major life plans, like starting a family or buying a house, to pay off major amounts of student debt,” Rutgers Student Assembly’s Legislative Affairs Chair Sean Tonra said. “So if we wish to see the lives we want, students from across the nation must get involved in student debt advocacy.”
Another powerful approach for student associations has been to pass resolutions calling on the president to cancel federal student debt. These resolutions are growing quickly and are bringing a new community of stakeholders to the campaign. In California, Colorado, New Jersey, and beyond, students have been using legislation to push the president toward debt cancellation. The letters and student government legislation go hand-in-hand with Congressional leaders—including Senate majority leader Chuck Schumer, Senator Elizabeth Warren, Representative Ayanna Presley–who are pushing the president to cancel $50,000 per student.
In-person actions like protests are equally critical to successfully getting debts canceled. One event took place in Washington, D.C., a few weeks ago, as the Debt Collective organization brought hundreds of borrowers and student activists, as far as New York and Ohio, for the April 4 Day of Action outside of the Department of Education.
As the president mulls over the decision to cancel debt, the movement continues to grow and push on multiple fronts. With the midterm elections on the horizon, now is the best time to demand that the president fulfill his campaign promise and cancel student debt. Biden was elected in 2020 with the help of young people—a key voting demographic—and the cancellation of student debt could supercharge his party’s prospects in November. If the president genuinely wants to “restore the soul of America,” he must do what he promised. It’s time end this moral and economic crisis by canceling student debt.