What Biden’s Presidency Could Mean for College Affordability

Trapped, hopeless and frustrated with the system that got them there, millions of student loan borrowers feel their futures hinge on President-elect Joe Biden’s plans for loan forgiveness.

“I feel like I’ll be making payments my entire life,” says Mitchell Geis, a California resident with about $250,000 in student loan debt from his undergraduate and graduate education. Geis signed a petition urging Biden to cancel such debt on day one of his presidency.

“I could earn a good living if I didn’t have these loans hanging over me,” he says. “That’d mean being able to be a first-time home owner, to contribute more to my local community and to provide a better life for my daughter.”

Though he makes monthly payments and works three jobs, Geis says his debt’s balance has only continued to grow. As a father and Asian American, he says his experience and the role race plays in these challenges reflect a system that’s failing him and millions of others who thought higher education would lead to a better life.

[Read: See How Average Student Loan Debt Has Changed in 10 Years.]

But change may be on the horizon. Biden has acknowledged the challenges borrowers are facing, saying at a Nov. 16 press conference, “They’re in real trouble. They’re having to make choices between paying their student loan and paying the rent, those kinds of decisions,” adding that efforts to address this “should be done immediately.”

Students from low-income families and student loan borrowers stand to benefit most directly from Biden’s plans to address college affordability once he’s in office. Here’s what they can expect from the new administration and when.

Continued COVID-19 Relief

First up is a potential extension of financial relief for student loan borrowers as cases of the novel coronavirus surge in the U.S.

Current relief measures in response to the COVID-19 pandemic suspended most federal student loan payments and halted interest accrual until Dec. 31. Short of these measures being extended again under the Trump administration, higher education experts say borrowers can count on Biden to extend this temporary measure.

[Read: How the Coronavirus Can Disrupt Your College Financial Aid.]

The extension could be granted within the first few days of the new administration taking office on Jan. 20, says Megan Coval, vice president of policy and federal relations at the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators.

Student Loan Forgiveness

Student loan borrowers may also see $10,000 of their debt forgiven under the Biden administration.

Experts say taking action to reduce the national student loan debt load may have positive ripple effects on the economy, making it more of a priority for the incoming administration.

“Everything happening with the economy intersects,” Coval says. “We have the loan payment suspension, but thinking about longer term impacts on higher education and students’ ability to be employed and pay back loans, it creates a sense of urgency for them.”

As of publication, Biden has not commented further on whether this loan forgiveness would be in the form of executive action early in his presidential tenure or legislative action through Congress; the latter may take more time because of differing opinions on the topic of loan forgiveness within the House of Representatives and the Senate.

Additionally, Biden plans to simplify the process and expand the eligibility requirements for borrowers taking advantage of Public Service Loan Forgiveness. PSLF is a program that forgives a borrower’s remaining federal direct student loan debt if he or she is employed full time by a government agency or not-for-profit organization and makes 120 qualifying monthly payments.

“There is a program that exists now under the law that forgives student loans for being able to engage in public service,” Biden said at the Nov. 16 press conference. “I’m going to institute that fundamental change in that so it’s able to be available to everyone, that in fact, is engaged. It’s not being very well managed right now.”

Increased Pell Grant Awards

Many college students from low-income families receive the Pell Grant, a form of federal financial aid that does not have to be repaid. Students who qualify for the Pell Grant in 2020-2021 can receive a maximum of $6,345. Biden plans to double this grant amount.

For students, receiving a larger Pell Grant may mean needing to borrow less or not at all to pay for school, says David A. Hawkins, executive director for educational content and policy at the National Association for College Admission Counseling.

“We think that would be an important and necessary change in helping students in the long term afford college without having to take on this student loan debt,” Hawkins says. “Doubling the Pell Grant would pay for about 50% of (the typical) public college tuition, and that would be a start.”

This measure will likely take time to accomplish, Coval says, as part of the Biden administration’s long-term plans to address the root cause of the sizable student loan debt many borrowers face today. Because, she says, “if we do the (loan) forgiveness but don’t also address some of the issues around the borrowing, aren’t we just going to be in this position again in a few years?”

Tuition-Free College

Also on the table is a plan to make college tuition free for certain students, including those at public colleges and universities whose families earn less than $125,000, and anyone attending community colleges or historically Black colleges and universities, known as HBCUs.

[Read: What Free College Could Mean for You.]

Some students may already be benefiting from free college programs at the state and institution levels, but experts say this long-term federal measure would likely fundamentally change how students pay for higher education.

While families may be eyeing possible larger Pell Grants and expanded free college opportunities, Hawkins says it’s smart to hope for the best and plan for the worst. That will mean continuing to save for college as much as possible, completing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, and being wary of predatory scholarships and misleading information online.

Moving forward with the ambitious plans outlined above will require a significant federal investment and possible congressional action during a time of competing national interests and an intensely divided government. But Hawkins points to this year’s social justice movement and the coronavirus pandemic as having created a new sense of urgency and innovation that could play a role in overcoming these barriers.

“We have found ways to pull ourselves through and get things done when we feel it’s an important thing to do,” Hawkins says. “So for students, I would say that the most critical thing we can do is to tell policymakers and anyone who will listen what you’re going through.”

“If there was any time for us to enact change, it could be now,” he added. “I want to offer hope to students. We’re going to strike while the iron is hot.”

Trying to fund your education? Get tips and more in the U.S. News Paying for College center.

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What Biden’s Presidency Could Mean for College Affordability originally appeared on usnews.com

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