Quiet on Debt Relief

Student loan debt relief has consumed federal higher education policy debates this fall, but the voices of associations representing colleges and universities have been muted.

November 28, 2022
A shot from the ground floor of a curved glass-sided building.
One Dupont, the home of many Washington lobbyists for higher education.

As legal battles have been waged over the Biden administration’s plan to forgive billions in federal student loans, the associations representing colleges and universities have stayed out of the fight.

Many of the key associations, such as the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities, issued statements of support after President Biden announced the debt relief while also backing more comprehensive measures to address college affordability, including doubling the maximum Pell Grant award, which is $6,895 for the 2022–23 academic year.

“Moving forward, it’s essential that Congress and the Biden administration work together to also invest in programs to make college more affordable and, in turn, limit student debt from accruing in the first place,” former APLU president Peter McPherson said in an August statement. “This requires investments in higher education on the federal level, state commitments to return to their historic role in support of public institutions, improved transparency on student outcomes to empower students and families to make informed decisions on institutions and academic programs, as well as meaningful, effective and fair federal accountability to protect students and taxpayers.”

Other groups issued similar statements but have been largely silent since. Meanwhile, a federal judge has declared the program unconstitutional, and an appeals court blocked the administration from forgiving student loans as it planned to do. Last week, the Biden administration asked Supreme Court justice Brett Kavanaugh to reverse the nationwide injunction or to take up the case and set an expedited briefing schedule for the court’s current term.

Kavanaugh, who handles emergency applications for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit, requested that parties opposed to the administration’s application submit responses by noon last Wednesday, Nov. 23.

So far, no Washington-based higher education interest group has submitted a brief in support of the administration’s position.

Terry Hartle, the senior vice president for government relations and public affairs at the American Council on Education, said his association was not asked to submit a brief. Given how quickly the lawsuits are progressing through the federal courts, he said it would be difficult for any outside group to be involved in a substantive way.

“This is something that they have been keeping very close to the vest for the last two years,” he said of the Biden administration. “We haven’t had discussions with them about student loan repayment. Given that, I would be surprised if they did ask us to do anything, but again, this is moving so fast. Right now, it is just involving the people who are suing to block it and the Department of Education. Even if we had the time, it would be hard to know what to do.”

Hartle said ACE was watching the lawsuits closely, though he noted the debt-relief plan is a policy that won’t have “immediate direct impact” on colleges and universities, since it mostly affects people who have left higher education.

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“Some potential students are wrapped up in this, but for the most part, people have completed their education,” he said. “We want the best possible treatment for them and we want to know what the administration’s plans are, so that when students call the financial aid offices, we can give them accurate advice.”

Ted Mitchell, president of ACE, said in August that Biden’s decision was “the right move at the right time, particularly after the pandemic-related financial and health struggles so many Americans have faced.”

Hartle said that position still stands. If congressional lawmakers started debating legislation regarding student loan forgiveness, ACE could become involved.

Debt-relief advocacy groups declined to comment directly on the topic. Cody Hounanian, executive director of the Student Debt Crisis Center, said the movement to cancel student debt has included more than 500 different groups and organizations, including those focused on consumer rights, civil rights, veterans and students.

“It is a big-tent issue that represents stakeholders from all corners of the country, all races and all economic backgrounds,” he said.

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Katherine Knott

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