President Biden faces a ticking timer on the resumption of student loan payments by the end of the summer — but will he allow it to go off?
The payments, paused amid the coronavirus pandemic, are set to begin either 60 days after the Supreme Court makes a ruling on Biden’s student debt forgiveness program or 60 days after June 30, the White House has said.
Biden had also previously said the payments would resume at the beginning of 2023, and that there would not be another extension of the pause, which began under then-President Trump in 2020.
Although the White House won’t discuss the possibility of a Plan B if the high court strikes down Biden’s relief proposal, experts believe yet another extension of the loan payment pause is a possibility.
President Joe Biden speaks during a meeting with the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology in the State Dining Room of the White House on April 4, 2023, in Washington. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky, File)
“I definitely think this is on the table,” said Rebecca Natow, assistant professor of educational leadership and policy at Hofstra University and a higher education policy expert.
Policy-wise, the move would put the Democratic president in line with student debt advocates and others in his party who are demanding an extension of the payment pause.
“From a political standpoint, this is popular among a cross section of voting demographics, and that should always be a a consideration going into a presidential election year,” said Rodell Mollineau, a Democratic strategist.
Borrowers have not had to make their payments since March 2020, as the pause has been extended nine separate times.
Even if the legality of Biden’s student debt relief plan isn’t resolved by June 30, the administration insists borrowers will have to soon begin repayment of student loan debt.
“If the program has not been implemented and the litigation has not been resolved by June 30, 2023 — payments will resume 60 days after that,” the White House said when the last pause was extended.
Trump and then Biden paused the payments under the authority of the Higher Education Relief Opportunities for Students (HEROES) Act, which gives the Education secretary more power over student loans during a national emergency.
Biden previously tied the resumption of payments to his proposal for up to $20,000 in student loan relief, but if that plan is struck down by the Supreme Court, the resumption of payments could be a blow for voters going into a presidential election year.
“Anybody that takes the pause off is going to be relatively unpopular for a while and not just with Democrats,” said Daniel Collier, assistant professor of higher and adult education in the Department of Leadership at the University of Memphis.
However, if Biden sticks with payments resuming at the end of this summer, there is another whole year until the election, which could give borrowers time to move on from the decision.
“The 2024 elections are still a year and a half away, so any action that occurs in the next few months would probably not be as impactful on the next presidential election as an action that happens closer to next November,” Natow said.
The Biden administration could face difficulty either way, as it has not given a specific reason defining when the pause is no longer needed.
“I believe the Biden administration has made several blunders with the repayment pause in the way that they’ve extended it,” Collier said. “They’re doing this seemingly arbitrarily, you know, there’s no economic targets for like when is it OK to turn this on.”
Even if the political climate would seem ripe for another student loan extension, the legal headaches that follow might be costly.
Currently, the administration is arguing that although the COVID-19 national emergency declaration is ending in May, they can still forgive student loan debts under the HEROES Act because it relates to the lingering effects of the pandemic. The White House could use the same argument for extending student loan payments yet again.
“There’s nothing in the HEROES Act that limits the relief that the secretary can provide to the end date of the national emergency,” said Abby Shafroth, director of the National Consumer Law Center’s Student Loan Borrower Assistance Project.
The administration could point to its data that shows resuming student loan payments without debt relief could increase the number of delinquency and put borrowers in a worse financial position than before the pandemic.
“There isn’t like a date certain. It’s not like you can only use [the HEROES Act] for one year after the end of the national emergency or anything like that. It’s just based on the facts. It’s based on when and whether relief is still needed to ensure that people aren’t left worse off as a result of the national emergency,” Shafroth added.
Others, however, are not quite as confident about the certainty of the Biden administration’s ability to use to HEROES Act again to extend payments.
“The answer is because the seminal power to do this came from the emergency acts of a pandemic, it’s not really clear that [Biden] alone has the power to keep the pause off,” Collier said.