Biden has forgiven billions in student loans. Voters may not have noticed.

After an expansive plan was struck down, he focused on targeted initiatives.

April 9, 2024, 1:16 PM

Valerie Bronstein, the daughter of a single mother, was 17 and pregnant when she enrolled in a local community college in Sacramento, California, and took out student loans. "To be honest, I didn't even know what a loan was," she said, laughing at the memory. "I probably didn't even know what an interest rate was until I bought a car when I was 24 years old." All she knew at the time was that she was signing student loan and financial aid forms so that she could go to school.

After Bronstein received her bachelor's degree in English in 1993, she took out more loans for a teaching certificate and moved to Washington, D.C., for a master's degree from George Washington University. It was her dream to work in museums, but when she found herself pregnant again and gave birth to twins in 1998, she moved back to her hometown for a stable job as a middle school teacher. Later, she'd become a college English professor and piece together part-time adjunct jobs.

Bronstein, who is now 52, had student loans following her the entire way. Sometimes her expected payments were $300 or $400 a month, which felt like a fortune when she was in her 20s. At other points, they were so astronomically high, she said it seemed like a joke. "There was a time when they were going to be like, $1,800 a month," she said. "I'm like, 'Are you kidding? That's more than a house payment.'" There were times she took extra classes so that she could defer payments, and there were times when her loans went into default. She paid when she could. "I guess the interest rate just kept piling on and piling on," she said.

What started out as a roughly $80,000 debt after her master's degree turned into $237,000 by November 2023. That's when she got a letter in the mail she thought was a scam at first, stating that her student loans had been forgiven. "I thought that the Republicans took it to the Supreme Court, and they said 'No, there's not going to be loan forgiveness,'" Bronstein said. "I remember calling my daughter saying, 'Oh, wouldn't this be great? Ha-ha-ha, someone is tricking me.'" Her daughter convinced her to log into the loan servicer's website, but it was down. That's when she started to wonder if it was real. "And then, sure enough, that Monday morning when I got through it, it was real. I mean, I couldn't even breathe."

Bronstein was right: In June, the U.S. Supreme Court did strike down President Joe Biden's sweeping plan for COVID-19 student loan forgiveness, which would have erased $10,000 or $20,000 for as many as 31 million borrowers across the board. Since then, however, the administration has undergone more targeted efforts to forgive student loans for borrowers under existing programs by correcting some administrative problems and making it easier to qualify. Some borrowers had been waiting patiently for their loans to be wiped out, while others, like Bronstein, were caught totally by surprise. And this week, Biden announced a new plan that could forgive at least $5,000 for as many as 10 million borrowers, but that forgiveness is months away and unlikely to take place before Election Day.

Government action like student loan relief is a relatively easy way to address one of voters' biggest concerns — the increasing cost of living — by erasing a big expense in borrowers' monthly budgets. The question for Biden's reelection campaign is whether enough voters know about his efforts and are willing to give him credit for fulfilling his 2020 campaign promise to deal with the country's $1.7 trillion student debt problem. "The plan that they proposed that was struck down was very clear, very simple, very easy to understand, and I think a lot of people bought into that, for obvious reasons," said Michele Shepard Zampini, the senior director of college affordability at The Institute for College Access and Success. "And then once that all fell apart, this secondary process is so esoteric, it's so wonky, it's so confusing, the timeline is so extended … there was like a momentum and a sense of clarity before that has been lost."

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The costs of college, and the student loans to pay them, have been soaring for at least two decades. As the Occupy Wall Street movement emerged in 2011, groups of student borrowers began calling for mass relief. President Barack Obama, under a task force chaired by then-Vice President Biden, made changes to some existing programs that made loan repayments and forgiveness easier for some, increased Pell Grant funding, and increased tax credits and funding for some colleges.

Also during the Obama administration, the first wave of borrowers became eligible to apply for forgiveness under a 2007 law that erased the remaining balances for people working in public service jobs — teachers, government employees, nonprofit service providers — after 10 years of repayment, or 120 payments. But a Government Accountability Office report in 2018 found that 99 percent of those who applied to have their loans discharged were denied. In part, it's because the program required borrowers to be on a certain type of repayment plan, provide proof of their employment during the repayment period and enroll separately, and borrowers often found the rules confusing and unclear. Forgiveness further ground to a halt under the Trump administration. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos derided a forgiveness program that allowed students defrauded by their schools to obtain forgiveness as too easy and "free money," and approvals slowed under her direction. Trump backed her, vetoing legislation that would have reversed her policy.

Overall, total student debt continued to rise until the COVID-19 pandemic.

The pandemic student loan payment pause was a historic reset, and in 2023, the total amount of student debt dipped substantially. Borrowers who were in default (meaning they had fallen behind on more than nine months of payments) got a reprieve, with the opportunity to enroll in a program that would erase past due amounts and return their loans to good standing. With payments and interest paused, some borrowers were able to pay down balances.

But a portion of the dip can also be explained by the Biden administration correcting some of the well-known problems with debt relief programs. Under existing rules, borrowers on income-driven repayment plans who still have a balance after 20 or 25 years of repayment, depending on the plan and when they borrowed, should see their remaining balances wiped out. Eligibility was determined by the number of monthly payments made, and the Biden administration made more people eligible by crediting more types of past payments toward total payment counts. More borrowers with total and permanent disability or who had attended discredited or shuttered colleges and universities could seek relief as well.

The Biden administration did something similar with public service loan forgiveness: making sure more borrowers' payments counted toward the total required by relaxing rigid paperwork rules and including more types of payment plans into the total count. For many, that meant some payments were retroactively credited.

Before loan repayment resumed in October, the Biden administration started a new repayment plan called SAVE (Saving on a Valuable Education) that capped monthly payments at 5 to 10 percent of borrowers' incomes and allowed borrowers with low incomes to pay nothing each month. It also ensured that the interest accrued every month would not exceed monthly payments, which stopped the process of negative amortization, where even people who were making regular monthly payments saw their total loan balances grow over time. Of the 20 borrowers I spoke to for this article, almost all felt that interest accruing in this way was unfair and should be stopped. The administration also created a grace period that would prevent borrowers from going into default during the first year of post-COVID repayment.

In February, Biden announced that those whose original loans totaled less than $12,000 and who had been in repayment for 10 years would also have their debts erased as long as they were enrolled in the SAVE plan.

Many of these forgiveness programs kicked in before payments resumed in October, and they've largely affected people who were in income-driven repayment plans or who worked in the public sector and haven't made as much money as their private sector counterparts. Some never expected their loans to be forgiven, while others thought they were years away from qualifying.

Like Bronstein, many other borrowers I spoke to said they'd had no idea what they were getting into when they first took out the loans. "How it was presented to everyone is that, 'This is how you pay for college now,'" said Megan Shaeffer, who took out her first loans for college in the 1990s. "My parents were from a generation where college wasn't that expensive, so they had no idea and hadn't really prepared to pay for a college education for me … The expectation was that after college, you would get a good-paying job where you would make these payments." She said she feels like it's taken decades for people to realize those expectations failed to materialize for so many.

For Tim Fitzmaurice, a 42-year-old teacher in New York, the news that his loans were forgiven was something of a surprise. When he'd first started to work, his paychecks were so small they barely covered anything, he said. When he called his student loan servicer for help, they funneled him into forbearance instead of telling him about the PSLF program, or other repayment programs he might have been able to afford and might have cost less long-term. Forbearance gave him a year at a time during which he wasn't required to make repayments, but interest continued to accrue and was capitalized, which meant his loans grew over time. He first learned about public service loan forgiveness when his mom heard Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer talking about it on TV, and he started to read everything he could about it. The forms were confusing and some of his payments didn't qualify. When Biden changed the program, the years he spent not making payments while on forbearance were suddenly credited. He started following the forgiveness news on Twitter. "There were batches of forgiveness, and so I logged in one day, and [my balance] was zero," he said. "I had that moment that everybody describes, which was an immense relief."

The people I interviewed had all heard about how hard it was to qualify for forgiveness, and had been uncertain whether their loans would ever be eligible. Some of them, like Cameron Clark, a 50-year-old county attorney in Florida, had overpaid and received refund checks. But even those who didn't receive a refund now have extra money every month to budget for their families, and nearly all of them said they were devoting it to long-delayed needs: saving more for retirement; replacing old, worn-out vehicles; caring for aging parents; or finally buying a home. Others are still paying down other student loans and hoping to qualify someday soon, but are uncertain whether they will because of the incremental nature of the announcements from the administration.

More than the extra money, though, most had an emotional response to their loans being forgiven. They described the loan balances as a heavy weight that was suddenly relieved once it was canceled. The stakes can be higher than many people are aware. Micah Burkey, a 38-year-old urban planner from Chicago, had an older brother, Adam, who had a learning disability and had been unable to finish college, but still had more than $100,000 in student debt. Adam took his own life in 2014, Burkey said. "It is my belief that if we had different bankruptcy laws around student loans, that he'd still be alive today," he said. "So, there's a little bit of extra tinge for me when it comes to what the debt was, what [an] anchor around my neck it felt like."

That's part of the reason Burkey would like to see the Biden administration do more to relieve student loan debt. Shaeffer, and many others, said the issue remained important to them as voters, too, and they'd like to see the rising cost of higher education addressed more broadly. "Just knowing from my own experience how I'm able to kind of participate in society without this huge debt hanging over me is very different," she said. "I would not have been able to get any degrees without loans because the cost of education was too much, and it's still the case for a lot of students."

Biden's new plan for broader forgiveness will have to go through the federal rulemaking process, including a public comment period. Forgiveness would extend to those whose balances are higher than what they originally borrowed because of accrued interest, those who qualify for forgiveness under existing programs but haven't applied, and those who've been in repayment for undergraduate loans for 20 years, among others.

Mike Pierce, executive director of the Student Borrower Protection Center, an advocacy group that organizes for student borrower relief, said his organization has found that many voters remain unaware of the smaller, incremental programs that have provided targeted relief. "They just know that he hasn't successfully delivered debt relief to the tens of millions of people that were promised help back in 2022," he said.

There is some evidence that few voters have heard about these piecemeal efforts since the Supreme Court scuttled the larger loan forgiveness plan. Eighty-four percent of registered voters had heard about Biden's plan to forgive $10,000 in student loan debt in a November survey from YouGov/Blueprint, and only a narrow majority, 52 percent, supported it. People seem less familiar with more targeted relief. In an Ipsos Poll on Consumer Behavior from Feb. 23, 56 percent were familiar with a recent instance of loan forgiveness. Fifty-five percent of respondents in a Feb. 8-11 YouGov poll said that student loan debt was somewhat or very important to them, but a plurality, 44 percent, thought borrowers should have to repay them while only 40 percent said the government should forgive them. There's unsurprisingly a partisan gap: 68 percent of Democrats said the government should forgive student loans, while only 17 percent of Republicans thought so.

Bronstein, the English professor from California, is uncertain whether more people learning about the targeted relief would be a good thing. "I almost think Joe Biden has to keep it a secret, because there's that jealousy factor out there," she said.

But just forgiving student loans won't be enough for many people who are still squeezed by high costs of living. "I still can't afford to live, that's the truth. I'm saying that, sadly," said Brittany John, who lives in North Carolina and works in child welfare, and whose loans were forgiven. "So it feels like a great relief, and I was very happy for it, and it gives me some faith that sometimes the right thing can work out, or sometimes the government will do things for the little people," she said. "I'm grateful. And I'm still struggling. That's where I'm at."

EDITOR’S NOTE: This story includes discussion of suicide. If you or someone you know needs help, the national suicide and crisis lifeline in the U.S. is available by calling or texting 988. There is also an online chat at