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The latest on student debt relief — and how young voters are feeling about it


When Joe Biden ran for president four years ago, he promised to cancel debt from student loans.


PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: For eliminating college debt. We're going to take care of this, and we can afford it.

SHAPIRO: Over the last few years, court rulings and political roadblocks got in the way of those plans, so the White House has taken a piecemeal approach instead. In a steady drip of announcements, the administration has reduced payments and forgiven debt for specific groups of borrowers, including teachers and public servants. Still, Americans hold $1.6 trillion of federal student loan debt.

All this week, we are looking at how the economy could factor into this year's elections. It's part of an NPR series called We, The Voters. And two of our reporters have been looking at how student loan debt could shape what happens in November. Let's begin with NPR's Elissa Nadworny, who covers higher education and is here in the studio with us. Hey, Elissa.


SHAPIRO: Walk us through what the Biden administration has done on student loans.

NADWORNY: So of course, President Biden's big campaign promise from 2020 to forgive up to $20,000 in debt did not happen. That was struck down by the Supreme Court last summer. But the administration has still managed to cancel or reduce payments for many borrowers through various executive actions. So in total, it's about $136 billion that have been forgiven for nearly 4 million student loan borrowers.

SHAPIRO: Hmm. Who has tended to benefit from this?

NADWORNY: So the administration is trying to help those most in need, mainly through making existing programs actually work - getting rid of red tape and paperwork, streamlining processes. So about 800,000 people who were part of the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program - that's, like, teachers and people who work in the government - have had their loans forgiven. Half a million borrowers who received forgiveness due to permanent disabilities, which - that was always supposed to happen. That was a law on the books that wasn't happening. The Biden administration kind of cleaned up that process.


NADWORNY: So that's about half a million borrowers. And then people who are on income-driven repayment plans that had been making payments for more than 20 years - so that's about another million people. Then, of course, you have this bigger bucket of people who had their debts wiped because they were defrauded by their schools.


NADWORNY: So most of the people in these buckets are older borrowers, and they've been paying back their loans for many years. But 4 million out of 44 million Americans who have debt is still, like, a pretty small amount.

SHAPIRO: Really interesting that it tends to be older borrowers who've had their debt forgiven because we think of this as an issue that matters so much to young voters. I want to bring in NPR's Elena Moore, who covers young voters.

Elena, you're in Wisconsin, and I know you've been talking to college students there. What are you hearing from them?

ELENA MOORE, BYLINE: Yeah. Hey, Ari. I mean, Biden got a lot of traction from young voters on his initial attempt to forgive student debt. But when the court struck that down, like, that was a huge blow to voters. And these latest actions - they just haven't resonated the same way. I got to sit in on a few listening sessions that California Democratic Congressman Ro Khanna held this week with student leaders at different Wisconsin schools. And Khanna was there actually as a Biden surrogate - so for the campaign. And in these sessions, you know, people talked about different issues that were important on campus. And at one point, at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, he posed this question to students.


RO KHANNA: Is that something that has resonated - the president's actions on forgiving loans?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: It - what if it got to me (ph)?

KHANNA: All right, all right - I get that.


MOORE: So - right, exactly. And right before that, Khanna asked if anybody at the table knew someone who had had their loans forgiven recently, and no hands went up. And, granted, again, these voters are still in school, so this is a less pressing issue in some ways. But when we talked to nearly 30 students on different campuses around the state, there is definitely a knowledge gap here. I mean, some have loans and think it's an issue, but they are broadly just not aware of the steps the administration has taken.

SHAPIRO: Interesting. So what is the Biden administration and what is the Biden campaign doing to try to demonstrate that this is a priority for them?

NADWORNY: Well, they're not giving up on this issue, which is kind of amazing to hear, you know, after that tape from Elena. You know, earlier this month, the president availed details to offer relief in cutting back payments for those who have really small loans and to also curb interest that's ballooned over time. I mean, they keep going after this issue, and they have done some important things like establishing this grace period for a year. And when the pandemic pause ended last fall, they have new repayment options, which are lowering monthly payments. I talked with Bernard Yaros, an economist at Oxford Economics, about how this is impacting families' budgets.

BERNARD YAROS: Borrowers are making reduced payments to the Department of Education on their student loans, so that's freeing up cash in their monthly budgets.

NADWORNY: And so ultimately then that would have a positive impact on the economy.

YAROS: Exactly. That has a positive impact on the economy by allowing consumers to spend more than they otherwise would.

MOORE: And I'll just jump in and say, like, in case anybody forgot, this is an election year.


MOORE: And so, you know, those current students that I'm talking to or people who have graduated recently - they're key, key for Biden's reelection campaign. I mean, voters under 30 overwhelmingly supported him in 2020, and he's struggled with this same group over the past few months. So I expect student loan debt forgiveness to continue to be a topic that the campaign pushes when talking to young folks because, you know, like Elissa is saying in her reporting, we know that young voters, like a lot of Americans, are worried about their economic future. And in the latest Harvard Youth Poll, which actually surveys Americans under 30, financial issues related to the economy and just, like, cost of living were the top concern.

SHAPIRO: So we know that voters, especially young voters, care about the economy. But where does this question of student loan forgiveness fit into the economic conversation?

MOORE: Well, this issue helped rally younger voters in 2020. But for students in school right now, they're in a weird middle period. They worry about the cost of school but don't currently qualify for these one-time forgiveness moves because they're not paying their loans yet. And the larger issue here of college affordability remains a problem. I talked to Miles Medina about this. They're a 27-year-old sophomore at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee who has loans, and they said they feel left out from some of these options.

MILES MEDINA: We just feel like such a loss. Like, man, what will our futures look like? How do we get in on whatever relief - you know, these patchworks of relief - 'cause not all of us can. We just don't have the access.

MOORE: And Medina understands that Biden is trying to relieve student debt through these avenues, but they say that there are so many more people still struggling.

SHAPIRO: Elissa, there's also the economic question of - is this good policy?

NADWORNY: Well, a lot of people don't think it is. I mean, they take issue with the idea of focusing on debt rather than the rising cost of college. Virginia Foxx, a Republican chair of the House Education Committee, has long been a critic of student debt cancellation. Here's what she said in a recorded statement to NPR.

VIRGINIA FOXX: Mr. President, this is not Monopoly money. Students, families and taxpayers deserve real solutions to lower the cost of college and fix the federal student loan program.

NADWORNY: She and other critics say that the taxpayers who never went to college basically come out on the short end of these plans because they have to pay for the loans for people who took them out, went to college and then reaped the benefit from that.

SHAPIRO: NPR's Elissa Nadworny here in Washington and NPR's Elena Moore in Wisconsin. Thank you both.

NADWORNY: Thank you, Ari.

MOORE: Thanks.

SHAPIRO: This conversation is part of our series, We, The Voters, exploring the issues that matter to you this election year. You can check out all the stories in the series so far at npr.org/wethevoters.

(SOUNDBITE OF OHNO SONG, "DROWSY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Elissa Nadworny reports on all things college for NPR, following big stories like unprecedented enrollment declines, college affordability, the student debt crisis and workforce training. During the 2020-2021 academic year, she traveled to dozens of campuses to document what it was like to reopen during the coronavirus pandemic. Her work has won several awards including a 2020 Gracie Award for a story about student parents in college, a 2018 James Beard Award for a story about the Chinese-American population in the Mississippi Delta and a 2017 Edward R. Murrow Award for excellence in innovation.
Elena Moore is a production assistant for the NPR Politics Podcast. She also fills in as a reporter for the NewsDesk. Moore previously worked as a production assistant for Morning Edition. During the 2020 presidential campaign, she worked for the Washington Desk as an editorial assistant, doing both research and reporting. Before coming to NPR, Moore worked at NBC News. She is a graduate of The George Washington University in Washington, D.C., and is originally and proudly from Brooklyn, N.Y.