Personal Finance

Biden said he'd forgive $10,000 in student debt for all borrowers. Will it actually happen?

Key Points
  • On the campaign trail, Biden called for forgiving a large chunk of outstanding student loan debt.
  • Now that he's the President-elect, here's what it would take for that proposal to become a reality.
Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden speaks about economic recovery during a campaign event at Colonial Early Education Program at the Colwyck Center on July 21, 2020 in New Castle, Delaware.
Drew Angerer | Getty Images

On the campaign trail, President-elect Joe Biden was called "the most progressive nominee in history." One of his policies that led to that description was his call for student debt forgiveness.

Now that he's been elected, the 42 million Americans with education loans may be wondering: Will it really happen?

To begin, what Biden proposed was a scaled-down version of the debt forgiveness plans that his rivals to the left in the Democratic primary campaigned on. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., wanted to cancel up to $50,000 in student debt for individuals with household incomes under $100,000. Meanwhile, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., had said he'd erase all of the country's outstanding education debt.

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Biden laid out a narrower plan, saying he would forgive $10,000 in student debt for all borrowers, and the rest of the debt for those who attended public colleges or historically Black colleges and universities and earn less than $125,000 a year.

In all, that would slash the country's $1.6 trillion outstanding student loan tab by about a third, according to calculations by higher-education expert Mark Kantrowitz.

Despite campaign promises, education issues are usually not a top priority for new presidents, Kantrowitz said. That might be different for Biden, though.

"His wife, Dr. Jill Biden, is an educator and the student vote helped elect him," Kantrowitz said.

Student debt burdens Americans more than credit card or auto debt, and more than 1 in 4 borrowers are either in delinquency or default. More than half of Americans say student debt is "a major problem" for the country, according to a Politico/Morning Consult poll. And one survey found that 58% of registered voters are in support of student loan forgiveness.

Still, the chance of passing legislation that would lower or eliminate people's balances depends on the composition of the Senate, which is still in the balance.

However, if the Democrats win both run-off Senate races in Georgia, there's the possibility that Biden could use a so-called budget reconciliation bill, which aims to cut the federal deficit, to couple student loan forgiveness with tax cuts, Kantrowitz said.

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A split Congress will make it more difficult to make the forgiveness a reality, as Republicans generally oppose the idea. Even if Democrats secure a majority, Republicans may use the filibuster to block bills.

Can a president forgive student debt without Congress?

There's a growing argument among the left that he or she can, and on the campaign trail Warren said she'd do just that. Biden, however, hasn't signaled whether or not he would pursue that route.

What would $10,000 in student loan forgiveness mean to you? If you're willing to share your story, please email me at annie.nova@nbcuni.com