Canceling student loan debt through executive action may be one of the biggest decisions of Joe Biden’s presidency. Canceling tens of thousands of dollars in debt would not only help our economy bounce back from COVID-19, but it would also reduce wealth inequality (especially along gender and racial lines) and allow millions of Americans to start rebuilding their lives. Debt cancellation may also improve Democrats’ chances of retaining the House and Senate in 2022 so they can continue passing meaningful legislation.
Canceling student debt is widely popular across the political spectrum. 54% of Americans support canceling $50,000 worth of debt for borrowers making less than $125,000 a year, compared to only 37% opposed. This popularity includes 36% of Republicans, six times higher than the share of Republican voters who supported Biden in 2020. Even in a polarized political environment, voters agree that student debt is stopping millions of people from starting families, creating small businesses, and buying the homes that grew America into a social and economic powerhouse in the 20th century.
Canceling $50,000 in student debt will also inspire the Democratic base to turn out in 2022, a difficult task during a midterm election. Twenty-nine million Americans who voted for Barack Obama in 2008 did not vote in 2010, leading to Democrats losing 12 governorships, 6 Senate seats, and 63 House seats and bringing an end to Obama’s legislative agenda. These drop-off Democratic voters are disproportionately young and people of color, two groups also disproportionately impacted by student loan debt. Putting tens of thousands of dollars into the pockets of millions of Americans who simply want college to be affordable, as it was for their parents, is a smart way to increase Democratic turnout in 2022.
To keep control of Congress, Democrats also need to continue their positive trend with white college graduates. In 2012, Mitt Romney won this group by 14 points. In 2016, Donald Trump won them by 4 points but he lost this group by 3 points in 2020. This 17-point swing over just eight years is not guaranteed to continue to 2022. Some white college graduates may revert to the GOP because Trump is not on the ballot, which is supported by congressional Republicans outperforming Trump in 2020 and by Georgia Senate runoff exit polling. Four in 10 Republican households have student loan debt and white graduates average $28,000 in debt four years after graduation (though about half the level of Black graduates). Forgiving tens of thousands of dollars in student loan debt will give these Americans an immediate and concrete reason to vote for Democrats, other than not being the party of Trump.
Contrary to conventional wisdom, debt cancellation may provide a unique opportunity for Democrats to weaken the Republican Party’s strength with white noncollege graduates. In 2020, Biden lost among this group of voters by 35 points, 10 points worse than Obama in 2012. Polling suggests forgiveness is popular among noncollege graduates, as a college degree has been a staple of the American dream for decades because it increases an individual’s earnings by an average of $26,000 per year. Besides its popularity, debt cancellation can also give Democrats a chance to change the educational composition of the electorate. For example, more people may apply to college and finish their degree since they’ll be less worried about massive debt. Growing the share of the population that is college educated will benefit Democrats since Biden performed 38 points better with white college graduates than with white noncollege graduates in 2020.
With the number of college graduates rising by over 20% since 2010, and this expansion expected to continue well into the 21st century, student debt cancellation is an investment in the future of our country and the future of the Democratic Party. Rather than agonize over legal language, Biden should follow his own advice and worry about not going big enough, as he did with the American Rescue Act. Should the courts strike down or weaken an executive order canceling $50,000 in student debt, Biden will have shown the Democratic base that he is fighting for them, providing millions of Democrats an important reason to vote in 2022. Biden will also have put Republicans in an uncomfortable position of either agreeing with him or alienating the white college graduates they desperately need to retake Congress. Regardless of the outcome, using his executive authority to cancel tens of thousands of dollars of student debt is the right policy and political decision for President Biden.