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Biden wants to erase some or all federal student loan debt for millions of borrowers

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Millions of student loan borrowers are waking up today still processing this news.

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

Yeah. President Biden will cancel some or all federal student loan debt for as many as 43 million people. And though the news has been expected for months, it still included a few surprises.

MARTIN: We've got NPR education correspondent Cory Turner with us for all the details. Good morning, Corey.

CORY TURNER, BYLINE: Good morning, Rachel.

MARTIN: So you've been covering all this very closely. Walk us through the basics of this plan and what stood out especially to you.

TURNER: Yes. So all borrowers who earn less than $125,000 a year can qualify for $10,000 in debt cancellation. And some version of that, Rachel, had always been the spine of Biden's floated proposals. What was unexpected was the cancellation doubled to $20,000 for borrowers who received a Pell Grant to attend college. So this plan, unlike previous rumored versions, had a lower income threshold and is simply more focused on lower-income borrowers. According to the White House, roughly 90% of the benefit will now be going to borrowers who earn less than $75,000 a year.

MARTIN: Is this going to happen automatically for these people?

TURNER: Well, this is the million-dollar question that borrowers are dying to know. My colleague Sequoia Carrillo spoke with one borrower right after the announcement yesterday. Her name is Trianna Downing.

TRIANNA DOWNING: And first I was, like, dancing. And then I was like, wait, should I log into my account and see if it actually happened? Or do I wait a week and see if it happens?

MARTIN: Right.

TURNER: We actually asked the education secretary, Miguel Cardona, about this last night on All Things Considered, and he recommended borrowers go to studentaid.gov/debtrelief. They'll find a fact sheet there and can sign up for email updates. The challenge here is real, and it is that borrowers will have to fill out some kind of basic form telling the Education Department that they qualify. According to the White House, about 8 million borrowers already have their income information on file. So for these folks, cancellation should be automatic. But for the other roughly 35 million people who should qualify, they're going to have to act to get the help.

MARTIN: OK. So let's talk about reaction from the political side of things. I mean, even members of the president's own party had wanted him to go bigger with this plan, right?

TURNER: Yes. Several liberal members of Congress, as well as the NAACP, had really been hammering Biden for not planning to forgive more than $10,000. And so this move did get some praise, sort of a mixed response, yesterday. Senator Elizabeth Warren and Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley both praised the plan with Pressley saying, quote, "it'll help millions of people make ends meet." The NAACP, though, offered a lukewarm response, saying we've got a ways to go.

MARTIN: Meanwhile, Republicans have been sort of dead set against this idea all along, in part because they argue that the president simply doesn't have the authority to do something this big. Are they right?

TURNER: Representative Virginia Foxx, the ranking Republican on the House Education Committee, told NPR in a statement, quote, "taxpayers are forced to pay for a bill they should not owe. Colleges are allowed to continue raising tuition. This is wrong, unfair and irresponsible." And it wouldn't surprise me, Rachel, to see a legal challenge to this move. The administration did release a legal memo trying to explain or justify its actions. The memo says the Heroes Act, which came in the wake of 9/11, gives the ed secretary the power to grant relief from student loans during specific periods like wartime or, as the memo says, to address the financial harms caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. So it'll be interesting to see what happens in the coming days and weeks.

MARTIN: NPR's Cory Turner. Thank you, Cory.

TURNER: You're welcome, Rachel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Rachel Martin is a host of Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
Cory Turner reports and edits for the NPR Ed team. He's helped lead several of the team's signature reporting projects, including "The Truth About America's Graduation Rate" (2015), the groundbreaking "School Money" series (2016), "Raising Kings: A Year Of Love And Struggle At Ron Brown College Prep" (2017), and the NPR Life Kit parenting podcast with Sesame Workshop (2019). His year-long investigation with NPR's Chris Arnold, "The Trouble With TEACH Grants" (2018), led the U.S. Department of Education to change the rules of a troubled federal grant program that had unfairly hurt thousands of teachers.
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