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Imagine for a moment that your student loan balance, no matter how high, instantly falls to $0, and the cloud of debt that hovers over your every financial decision disappears. Today, by simply signing an executive order, President Biden can make that dream a reality.
When the Department of Education was first given the power to issue student loans, it was also granted the power to “compromise, waive, or release any right” to collect on them, an authority known as “compromise and settlement.” Essentially, the Biden administration can suspend the collection of student debt altogether, and poof!, tens of millions of Americans would be student loan debt-free! It’d be like waving a magic wand, except the wand isn’t magic, it’s a legitimate legal authority vested in the Department of Education by Congress.
As an organizer with the Debt Collective, a union of debtors working to defend households and cancel illegitimate debts, I’m part of a growing movement that is pressuring the Biden administration to use this authority and liberate more than 45 million student debtors. On Inauguration Day 2021, we launched the Biden Jubilee 100, in which 100 student debtors withheld their payments for Biden’s first 100 days in office to leverage the financial power of their debt. We took to the physical and digital streets in states nationwide and coordinated a student debt Week of Action. More recently we’ve collaborated with major cities, including Boston, Philadelphia, and Washington, DC, to pass bold city resolutions calling on the Biden administration to cancel all student debt and deliver an economic boom for communities everywhere.
Now we’re turning the pressure up a notch, handing Biden the key to fixing this national crisis on a silver platter: We wrote the entire executive order for him. Thanks to the same brilliant legal minds at the Debt Collective who rescued compromise and settlement from obscurity, we wrote the exact language, pursuant to existing legal authority, that Biden would need to use to cancel about 95% of all student loans. Literally, all the president has to do is sign this piece of paper.
So far Biden has offered nothing but stall tactics, requesting in April that Education Secretary Miguel Cardona draw up a memo about his legal authority to cancel student debt via executive order — a power Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, Senator Elizabeth Warren, and other high-profile lawmakers have already concluded exists.
Let’s be clear: This authority has existed for some time. Former president Trump used this authority three times to suspend payments and student loan interest during the pandemic — our evidence that Biden’s request for a memo detailing his legal authority on power that’s already been used is unnecessary.
Our communities need help now, and canceling student debt is something the Biden administration can do today, without going through our dysfunctional Congress and seeking ever-elusive bipartisan support. Eliminating student debt would be an enormous bottom-up stimulus to our economy, creating millions of new jobs, accelerating home buying, and delivering additional pandemic relief to communities still recovering from the hardship of COVID-19.
And because student debt is racially regressive — Black borrowers owe 100% more in student debt than white borrowers four years after graduating — canceling this debt would drastically narrow a widening racial wealth gap, closing the Black-white wealth gap for student loan borrowers by more than 25 percentage points. Almost two-thirds of student debt is held by women, who often struggle to pay back loans after being systemically underpaid in the workforce.
Broad-scale cancellation would largely benefit our veterans, farmers, teachers, public defenders, and countless other professionals that often need to have costly degrees yet lack adequate pay. Health care workers, the most student debt-burdened workers of any industry, would also be beneficiaries of debt relief. What better way to thank the doctors, nurses, and social workers, who hold double the national average of student debt, for their sacrifices during the pandemic than to grant them a debt jubilee? Notably, if Biden eliminates student debt, we could also put an end to garnishing the monthly Social Security checks of thousands of seniors to pay off old loan debt and interest, a giant obstruction to a successful anti-poverty program.
While this is not an all-encompassing solution to higher education reform, canceling student debt puts us on a path to tuition-free college and returning education to a public good, instead of a privatized corporate business with customers who happen to be students. We could empower a generation of high schoolers to enroll in college without requiring them to mortgage their future or enlist in the military as a dystopian proxy for financial aid. We could also curb the 9 in 10 student debt borrowers who battle significant anxiety due to their loan burden, too many of whom experience depression or even take their own lives.
The racial, economic, and moral incentives to eliminate student debt are compelling, but perhaps Biden should weigh the political risks that come with not using his legal authority. Forty percent of registered Black voters, like myself, say they would strongly consider sitting out the next election unless student debt is canceled. Biden would be unwise to infuriate voters like me, a swing state Black voter under the age of 25 with nearly $50,000 in student debt. For that matter, he'd be unwise to double-cross any voter who recalls Biden's clear declaration: "Every American should have a minimum of $10,000 of student loan debt forgiven."
Given Congress’s inability to get big things done and a looming federal election in which Democrats losing House seats seems historically inevitable, Biden should act quickly to sign this executive order to cancel student debt and begin releasing the uniquely American shackles of indebtedness. The former senator could also consider granting a remission of debts to right the wrongs of his decades-long assault on borrower protections, a toxic legislative record with which debtors are all too familiar.
With the stroke of a pen, Biden could grant tens of millions of Americans a semblance of financial freedom, keeping one of his major campaign promises along the way. Fortunately for debtors, this signature from Biden is not the only path to liberation. In the age of finance capitalism, we as debtors should see our debts as assets that we can collectively leverage against governments and financial institutions. We can demand full cancellation through campaigns of economic disobedience, growing debtors’ unions, and by continuing to challenge the myth of a debtor who made a bad choice as an individual. We have no other option but to fight for debt abolition and a society where everyone has the means to live. Now we must use that will to get this executive order on President Biden’s desk immediately, and by any means necessary.
Want more from Teen Vogue? Check this out: 5 Young People On Why They're Refusing to Pay Their Student Loans
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Originally Appeared on Teen Vogue