By Sally Greenberg, Chief Executive Officer
Last week, I attended the oral argument in the Supreme Court challenging student debt forgiveness initiative launched by the Biden Administration. The states of Missouri, Nebraska and four others, along with two students, are challenging Biden’s proposal to forgive student loan debt for 40 million Americans.
During his campaign, President Biden promised to reduce the albatross of student debt burdening millions of young Americans through his Department of Education. His proposal only applies to federal loans and is narrowly tailored and means tested. The plaintiff states and students challenging the loan forgiveness plan are arguing that it exceeds federal law, and that “canceling hundreds of billions of dollars in student loans is a breathtaking assertion of power.” The administration countered that Education Secretary Miguel Cardona has the authority to forgive the debt under a 2003 law, the Higher Education Relief Opportunities for Students Act.
The debt forgiveness program would cancel up to $10,000 of debt for those who have federal student loans as long as they make under $125,000 or $250,000 for couples. Those getting Pell grants are eligible for an additional $10,000. Thus, 20 million students could see their debt totally wiped out; all told, it will cost taxpayers $430 billion.
Sitting in the courtroom, I was seeing the new members of the Supreme Court in action for the first time and that was fun. Each of the justices has their own distinct style. Some are far more engaged than others, like the newest member, Justice Katanji Brown Jackson, who fired away a series of questions to the AG from Missouri about whether the state had standing to challenge the law. Even conservative Justice Amy Coney Barrett questioned standing, asking why those alleging injury weren’t plaintiffs in the case. Justices Sotomayer and Kagan also pressed the plaintiffs on both the broad language in the law and the standing problem.
Solicitor General Elizabeth B. Prelogar, whose argued the case for the Biden Department of Education, argued that the Department’s plan was exactly what Congress had in mind when it passed the 2003 law, giving the executive branch the power to … “waive or modify any statutory or regulatory provision.” I Wiki’d Prelogar and learned some cool facts: she’s a Harvard Law grad who won Miss Idaho Teen USA of 1998! She is fluent in Russian, and her father went to my alma mater, Antioch College in Yellow Springs, OH and oh yes, I was delighted to see that her dad served at one time as head of consumer protection for the North Carolina Attorney General.
I realize I’m not an unbiased observer, but I thought Prelogar had the better arguments, First, the law is broadly worded and gives a lot of latitude to the Executive Branch on student loan waivers. Second, the standing issue is a serious hurdle for the opponents. To challenge the loan forgiveness program, they need to show that they have suffered a specific, rather than generalized, injury that can be remedied by relief from the Court. Neither of the challengers can show direct harm.
The bottom line for the National Consumers League and the hundreds of groups that support this narrowly tailored loan forgiveness is that the $10,000- $20,000 debt for 40 million Americans can be crippling to families –the reality is that student debt prevents many young people from buying homes, starting families and getting on with their lives. We are therefore hoping against hope that the Supreme Court throws out this challenge and the student debt forgiveness proposal at last be implemented.