Apr 10, 2024

Biden's new student debt cancellation plan.

President Joe Biden claps during a clean car event in 2021. Image via White House / Flickr
President Joe Biden claps during a clean car event in 2021. Image via White House / Flickr

Plus, a question about the impacts polls have on turnout.

I’m Isaac Saul, and this is Tangle: an independent, nonpartisan, subscriber-supported politics newsletter that summarizes the best arguments from across the political spectrum on the news of the day — then “my take.”

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Today's read: 12 minutes.

President Biden announces a new student debt cancellation plan. Plus, a question about the impacts polls have on turnout.

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Quick hits.

  1. Arizona's Supreme Court ruled yesterday that an 1864 near-total ban on abortion is enforceable, superseding a law passed in 2022 that allows abortion before 15 weeks and would have gone into effect in two weeks. (The ruling)
  2. Jennifer and James Crumbley, the parents of a high schooler who committed a mass shooting in Michigan, were sentenced to 10-15 years in state prison for failing to prevent their son's actions. (The sentences)
  3. Norfolk Southern agreed to pay $600 million in a class action lawsuit settlement with East Palestine, Ohio, where one of their trains derailed and spilled toxic chemicals in 2023. (The settlement)
  4. The Environmental Protection Agency will require more than 200 chemical plants to cut their emissions of toxic chemicals linked to cancer. (The rule)
  5. The European Court of Human Rights ruled that countries have an obligation to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to protect people from climate change, the first international court ruling of its kind. (The decision)

Today's topic.

President Biden's new student loan cancellation plan. On Monday, President Biden unveiled a new plan that could erase some or all of the college loans for up to 30 million borrowers. The plan comes less than a year after the Supreme Court blocked a broader effort that would have forgiven an average of $20,000 for roughly 40 million Americans. Today, around 43 million Americans own about $1.7 trillion in student loan debt, or an average of just over $39,500 per borrower.

Biden's previous plan leveraged the Higher Education Relief Opportunities for Students, or HEROES Act, to grant waivers for student debt relief. The Supreme Court ultimately ruled that the Biden administration was using the bill in a way Congress had not intended. This time, Biden is using the Higher Education Act, which gives the Secretary of Education the power to "compromise, waive or release" federal student loans.

The new plan targets five main groups:

  • Borrowers whose loan balances have grown despite their consistent payments due to interest rates. The provision would cancel up to $20,000 in interest for Americans who owe more than they originally borrowed. That cap would not apply to people making less than $120,000 per year or couples making less than $240,000 per year who are enrolled in an income-driven repayment plan. This is the largest group of borrowers who would be impacted, an estimated 25 million people. 
  • Borrowers whose undergraduate or graduate loans have been in repayment for at least 20 or 25 years, respectively. This provision would impact roughly 2.5 million people. Anyone with only undergraduate debt who began repaying their loans at least 20 years ago, or with graduate debt who began repaying their loans 25 years ago, would be eligible.
  • Borrowers with debt who attended “low financial value” colleges. This provision would apply to anyone who went to colleges that lost their eligibility or were denied recertification because they cheated students, or those who went to college programs that left students with low incomes compared to their student loans.
  • Borrowers experiencing hardship and struggling to pay back loans. This provision would apply to borrowers who are considered highly likely to default on their loans due to hardships like medical debt or child care costs. The White House did not specify what financial threshold qualifies for hardship, so it’s unclear how many borrowers this might impact. 
  • Borrowers whose income levels qualify them for forgiveness but who haven't applied. This provision would apply to roughly 2 million people who qualify for programs like the Public Service Loan Forgiveness or income-driven repayment plans but haven't applied.

The Education Department has not yet released a formal proposal as it is still going through a federal rulemaking process to clarify how the Education Secretary can invoke their authority to cancel the debt. Most of the cancellation would be done automatically with no need for beneficiaries to apply (except for the group of borrowers who want to apply for hardship).

Typically, the rulemaking process would have the cancellation going into effect in the summer of 2025, but the administration has fast-tracked some rules for early implementation, and officials say the forgiveness could be enacted as soon as this fall. Like the administration’s previous attempt, the effort is expected to face legal challenges that could delay or halt it entirely.

You can read our previous coverage of student debt cancellation efforts here.

Today, we're going to break down some arguments from the right and left about the plan, then my take.

What the right is saying.

  • The right is strongly opposed to Biden’s plan, depicting it as unconstitutional and dishonest.
  • Some say Biden is pushing this issue solely for political gain.
  • Others criticize young voters who continue to insist on sweeping loan forgiveness. 

The Wall Street Journal editorial board called the plan “Biden’s latest lawless student loan forgiveness.”

“Mr. Biden’s previous repayment plans prevent interest from compounding, eliminating the punishment for not making full and regular payments. Now borrowers also won’t have to pay interest they’ve racked up, which could total hundreds of billions of dollars. Wouldn’t Americans love to write off interest that accrues on credit cards too,” the board wrote. “Borrowers who can’t find (or don’t want) gainful employment could get their loans canceled simply by claiming a ‘hardship.’ One example the White House gives is child-care expenses. Get ready for an elastic definition of ‘hardship.’”

“Mr. Biden’s new loan forgiveness is still illegal. The High Court stressed that student loan forgiveness is a major question that requires clear authorization from Congress. But Mr. Biden seems to believe he can jam the courts by automatically forgiving debt before a judge has time to stop him. The White House says most borrowers won’t even have to apply for loan relief. Sometime before the November election, Mr. Biden will simply declare their debt forgiven. That means a future Congress and a President Trump might be unable to undo the lawless act. Where are the press scolds who warn about a President who threatens democracy?”

For The American Enterprise Institute, Beth Akers argued “Biden knows student loan cancellation is a bad idea.”

“Biden knows better. Less than a month into his presidency, he declared ‘I will not make that happen’ in response to a voter asking whether or not he’d back progressives’ proposal to broadly forgive student debt… And beyond the question of authority, he seemed to acknowledge the ill-conceived nature of broad-based student loan cancellation when he offered that he didn’t want taxpayers to pick up the tab for graduates of ‘Harvard and Yale and Penn,’” Akers said. “Such broad forgiveness is simply bad policy. Not only is it regressive, it also provides colleges and universities with precisely the wrong incentives.”

“So, why the change of pace? It seems that this administration is more interested in scoring political points than enacting good policy. The math is simple: 30 million Americans with lower or completely forgiven student loan balances will have Biden to thank, and they may repay the favor in November by giving him their vote. As is the case with many transfer programs, costs are distributed, while benefits are concentrated,” Akers wrote. “One thing is abundantly clear: Biden has transformed the federal direct loan program, enacted with the intention of solving a narrow problem, into a giant drain on the US Treasury.”

In USA Today, Dace Potas said “Gen Z wants student loan forgiveness without any accountability. It doesn't work that way.”

“My generation has a political problem. We gravitate toward quick fixes for massive problems that plague our country. The generation raised on instant gratification, to little surprise, is looking for the same in politics and government. On no other issue is this more apparent than the student loan crisis,” Potas wrote. “Not only are we broadly in favor of other people paying off our debts, a majority of whom do not hold a bachelor's degree or higher, we don’t even have the decency to be more aware of the issue than generations that are more likely to have already paid off their loans.”

“While I think this course of action is unwise and immoral, Gen Z has a better chance of accomplishing debt relief through Congress, which is responsible for the power of the purse. Blanket cancellation does nothing to combat the problem of the student loan crisis. In fact, it would only serve as a further incentive for students to attend colleges they can’t afford, obtaining degrees that give them little chance of allowing them to pay off the debt they accrued in the process. Congressional efforts are much better geared toward legislation curtailing the federal student lending programs that have gotten us into this mess in the first place.”

What the left is saying.

  • The left mostly supports Biden’s ongoing efforts to cancel student loan debt. 
  • Some argue forgiving these loans will benefit all of society in the long run. 
  • Others say Biden is failing to address the underlying cause of the student debt crisis.

In MSNBC, Hayes Brown said the plan “is a winner.”

“The focus on interest is a smart pivot for the administration, given the massive resistance that previous attempts to wipe out student debt wholesale has seen. In wiping out accumulated interest, allowing any remaining payments to go directly to the principle, many who have been drowning in debt may actually be able to pay back what they owe while avoiding accusations that the program is unfair to those who already paid their loans in full.”

“What makes his announcement doubly important is that it manages to be good policy and good politics,” Brown wrote. “Biden’s campaign pledge to propose student loan debt relief to Congress was a major turning point in the debate over what to do about spiraling education costs in America. It’s a promise that many student loan holders, who saw repayments and interest rates totally frozen during the pandemic, have been keen to see brought to life, especially now that repayments have resumed… Being able to rack up wins is crucial considering how much Biden needs to keep younger voters in his camp at the polls this fall.”

In The Los Angeles Times, LZ Granderson suggested “forgiving loans is the least we can do.”

“Some conservatives have accused Biden of trying to buy votes — as if Donald Trump offering tax breaks to a room full of billionaires was a policy-motivated decision. Others point out the president is only doing this to fulfill a campaign promise, which, for some reason, I thought was part of the job,” Granderson said. “In America, the childless pay for schools they don’t need, and city dwellers pay for county roads they’ll never drive on. That kind of economic cooperation is needed in a land as vast as ours.”

“Student loan debt isn’t an impediment to the ultra-rich, who pay out of pocket for college, or even for many in the upper middle class, who have connections to turn their $400,000 degree into a $200,000-a-year starter job. But for the bottom 20% of earners in our society, people who once had a chance to climb up the economic ladder, college has become a treacherous option,” Granderson said. “Like public schools and country roads, we all need college to be accessible for people from all economic backgrounds. Out-of-control college costs and crushing student debt are everyone’s problem.”

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch editorial board wrote “the student-loan crisis is actually a tuition crisis. Focus on that.”

“With its latest student-loan forgiveness proposal, the Biden administration is attempting to revive one of its most ill-advised campaign stunts — er, fiscal policies. The details have changed but the deeply problematic issues are the same: American taxpayers, many of whom didn’t go to college because they didn’t want to rack up debt, will be forced to help pay off the loans of those who chose differently — and who, in many cases, are far more financially comfortable than their unwitting benefactors.

“The inherent unfairness of it is only one of many problems. In the end, this temporary, one-off solution to the chronic crisis of out-of-control tuition costs could drive those costs up further, while giving the federal and state governments cover for failing to address the core issues causing it. This policy deserves a failing grade,” the board said. “Ultimately, this short-sighted approach to the issue of spiraling student debt (Just cancel it!) not only doesn’t solve the problem, but makes it worse going forward.”

My take.

Reminder: "My take" is a section where I give myself space to share my own personal opinion. If you have feedback, criticism, or compliments, don't unsubscribe. Write in by replying to this email, or leave a comment.

  • Biden’s first proposal was too broad, poorly timed, and illegal.
  • This new plan is less broad, but I’m still concerned about the timing and don’t think it’s changed enough to survive legal challenges.
  • I am not against cancellation in principle — and a portion of this plan makes sense — but the new proposal still falls short of a legal and comprehensive solution.

When Biden's original student debt forgiveness plan was released, I argued two things that I think are still relevant today.

First, on the merits, I did not support the idea of broadly canceling student debt. Student debt is something that has impacted me, my family members, and my friends. I am part of the generation most burdened by student debt. And in principle, I do not think student loan cancellation is inherently bad. There are situations where it's good and useful — as an economic stimulus or as a way to relieve students who were victims of predatory lending. But that’s a much narrower scope of forgiveness than what Biden first proposed (or than what his new plan is targeting). 

In April of 2022, when Biden's first plan was released, I argued it was bad timing and not justifiable. The economy was doing better, inflation was already rising, and more economic stimulus was not needed. Furthermore, too many people in advantageous positions would have had their debt forgiven, making the policy regressive. I was also convinced by the argument that simply canceling debt would do nothing to solve the structural issues resulting in economic hardship for college graduates unless the actual system was reformed. Otherwise, as Dace Potas and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch are both arguing today, we’ll just get a whole new generation of borrowers who now think they won’t have to pay back their loans because eventually the government will forgive them. That will only exacerbate future problems.

Second, I argued student debt cancellation — as Biden initially tried to execute it — was probably illegal. It turned out I was right, and the Supreme Court struck it down.

Both of those points are still true now: The timing is not justifiable, and the plan is probably going to get struck down. On the timing issue, while inflation has improved, we are still not out of the woods. An economic stimulus like this would still be premature and too risky. On top of that, the economy is improving. Unemployment is low, wage growth has caught up to inflation, and the stock market is booming. Again: There might be a time for broad student loan forgiveness, but I don’t think that time is right now. Don’t forget that Biden has already approved $146 billion of student debt relief for 4 million borrowers.

As for the legality, I also don’t expect all of this plan to survive. The devil will be in the details, and the Education Secretary is apparently still exploring the rulemaking process to make this possible, but the Supreme Court made it quite clear that student loan forgiveness is a major question that requires clear authorization from Congress. 

The court has also already defined the applications of the Higher Education Act it deems acceptable; in its 2022 ruling in Biden v. Nebraska, Chief Justice Roberts wrote, “The Act authorizes the Secretary of Education to cancel or reduce loans in certain limited circumstances. The Secretary may cancel a set amount of loans held by some public servants. He may also forgive the loans of borrowers who have died or become ‘permanently and totally disabled’; borrowers who are bankrupt; and borrowers whose schools falsely certify them, close down, or fail to pay lenders.” That’s about as clear as the court can be, and it casts doubt on the legality of much of Biden’s new plan. As the Wall Street Journal wrote (under “What the right is saying”), the president seems to be hoping he can automatically forgive the debt before a court stops him. I sincerely doubt it works. 

That said, it’s worth conceding this plan is better than the original one for a few reasons: 1) It targets students burdened by absurd interest rates that never allow them to climb out, which is a real problem; 2) It is genuinely narrower, at least in that it impacts fewer people; and 3) It includes specific relief programs for students who were conned by bogus for-profit colleges or misleading college programs, which I actually do think is something we should address — and which the Supreme Court has signaled it would permit.

I also want to be clear that there are bad arguments against student debt cancellation. For instance, it is silly to argue that Biden is "buying votes" and therefore we should oppose this effort. If you define "buying votes" as trying to improve the economic situation of Americans and sell them on your plan, then every president “buys votes.” Forgiving debts is pretty similar to cutting taxes or creating a program like the Child Tax Credit: It's an economic plan designed to benefit one group that other groups will have to pay for in some way.

I also don’t believe in the argument that "I paid my loans so they should, too." That argument strikes me not only as selfish, but also misapplied. I suffered and sacrificed to pay my debts, but I also know that I was fortunate to get some help and to stay regularly employed throughout economic downturns. Many people got mired in the 2008 crisis or suffered some kind of setback or just didn’t get the same opportunities I did. “Things that were hard for me should always be hard for everyone” just doesn’t make our country better.

Again: We must fix the system. Debt cancellation alone doesn’t do that, but a major overhaul to how student loans are constructed could. Simply canceling debt is just going to create a whole new generation of people who think they can borrow without worrying about paying off their loans, and then get trapped under mountains of debt and interest rates. We’ll have the same problem — only worse — in another 10 or 20 years.

This latest plan is better than the first. But it still fails on the merits, and given the bar set by the Supreme Court for how executive action can be used to cancel debt, it's also likely to get struck down or limited.

Take the survey: What do you think of Biden’s latest student debt cancellation plan? Let us know!

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Your questions, answered.

Q: Something I've been wondering since the 2016 election: is there any research being done around the effect that polls themselves can have on voter turnout? My hypothesis is that because the polls leading up to the 2016 election made it look like Hillary Clinton's victory was so much more probable than Trump's, she actually lost voter turnout on election day — possibly younger voters teetering on the edge of disillusionment. Is there any credibility to this theory? 

— Ellie from Los Angeles, CA

Tangle: Actually, yes. Obviously there is not now nor will there ever be definitive proof of why a group as large and complex as the United States voting public does what it does, including in 2016, but there’s pretty good evidence to say that you’re right — on both counts.

In 2016, tons of people expected Hillary Clinton to win. The polls showed her with a commanding lead in Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, all states she would go on to lose. Hillary’s own campaign assumed she would win. James Comey assumed she would win. You can be almost certain that Clinton would have campaigned differently if her staff were all uncertain of the outcome up until election day; and if her campaign would have acted differently, then it stands to reason that the voters would have, too.

As for the effect polling has on voter turnout, a collaboration from researchers in Germany, Switzerland, and Chicago found that there is indeed a causal relationship between voter turnout and how close polls are. The researchers found that not only did more people show up in elections that they thought would be close, but more people showed up in what the study called “politically unrepresentative municipalities, where locally available signals of closeness are less correlated with national closeness.” On top of that, more voters in close elections show up to vote for the underdog than the favorite.

Anecdotally, I’ve seen the difference myself among voters in places I’ve lived. In New York, so many friends and family have been ambivalent about national elections. In Pennsylvania, that has never been true. That my experience matches studies like the one above is compelling to me. 

So yes, it’s absolutely credible to think that Clinton voters stayed home because they believed there was no point, but Trump voters — specifically those in areas that they believed would be very competitive — showed up.

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Under the radar.

In an unusual act of unity, several of the biggest television networks have co-signed a letter insisting that President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump participate in televised debates, something neither candidate has committed to doing. The letter was endorsed by Fox News, ABC, CBS, CNN, and NBC. “We, the undersigned national news organizations, urge the presumptive presidential nominees to publicly commit to participating in general election debates before November’s election,” the letter said. The networks are seeking more endorsements from major newspapers for their letter, which has not been finalized. Axios has the story


  • $577 billion. The approximate amount of student loan debt held by the federal government in 2008.
  • $1.6 trillion. The approximate amount of student loan debt held by the federal government in 2023.
  • 8. The number of schools on The Princeton Review’s list of the 389 best colleges with a tuition cost of more than $90,000 for the 2024-25 academic year.
  • 43%. The percentage of Gen Z voters in swing states who say President Biden is doing too little to address the burden of student loan payments, according to a December 2023 poll from Bloomberg News/Morning Consult.
  • 27%. The percentage of all voters in swing states who say President Biden is doing too little to address the burden of student loan payments. 
  • 48%. The percentage of voters who say canceling student loan debt is an important issue to them in the 2024 presidential and congressional elections, according to a March 2024 poll from SocialSphere.
  • 73%. The percentage of voters who believe the government should take some action on student loan debt, including 50% who support partial or complete loan cancellation.

The extras.

Yesterday’s survey: 857 readers answered our survey on Trump’s stance on abortion with 42% finding it appropriate. “Reading his opinion before I got into the rest of the article I immediately thought ‘this isn't even an opinion on abortion’ (Also I don't agree with these choices for this poll),” one respondent said.

What do you think of Biden’s latest student debt cancellation plan? Let us know!

Have a nice day.

A collaborative project at the Mass General Cancer Center in Boston, Massachusetts, has shown dramatic results in a novel kind of cell therapy among patients with a deadly form of brain cancer. In a paper published in The New England Journal of Medicine, researchers shared the results of their new approach to CAR-T cell therapy, a process for adapting the immune system’s T-cells to develop chimeric antigen receptors (CAR-T) to target tumors. The first three patient cases from a phase 1 clinical trial showed success in targeting glioblastomas. “We report a dramatic and rapid response in these three patients. Our work to date shows signs that we are making progress, but there is more to do,” said co-author Elizabeth Gerstner, MD. Mass General has the story

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Isaac Saul
I'm a politics reporter who grew up in Bucks County, PA — one of the most politically divided counties in America. I'm trying to fix the way we consume political news.