Student loan relief talks end without a final answer on who should get help

President Joe Biden's Plan B for student loan debt forgiveness was largely panned this week by a committee set up to determine how far-reaching and generous it would be.

Their beef? Generally, most felt it didn't go far enough. By the end of what was supposed to be their last round of negotiations on Tuesday afternoon, tensions among the stakeholders − who range from borrowers to loan servicers − were on full display.

Some members of the panel pleaded with the Education Department to schedule another session so they could talk more about how to fix America’s runaway student loan crisis. Representatives for the agency left the door open for extending the talks, which was not originally planned, but didn’t commit to it.

As negotiations wrapped up, the tenor of the conversation soured – “don’t interrupt me,” one committee member, Jalil Bishop, told a department stand-in – and the turn from collegiality illustrated just how far apart the Biden administration seems to be from some of the nation’s leading student loan experts about what to do after the Supreme Court got in the way of the president’s first plan.

“If this is the primary broad-based relief, I think it's going to be very disappointing,” one of the members who represents borrowers, Sarah Butts, said of the agency’s recommendations so far.

Walking the student loan debt forgiveness line

The administration is trying to navigate two competing forces: an appetite by some for the kind of widespread forgiveness the Supreme Court struck down this summer and opponents who are poised to file legal challenges against any debt erasure plan the administration comes up with. Trying to strike that balance over the past few months has managed to irk critics on both the left and right.

Last week brought the first meaningful glimpse into how far the Education Department might be willing to go with a second try. The agency released draft rules proposing two big changes: student debt relief for longtime borrowers and debt cancellation up to $20,000 for borrowers whose loans have inflated because of interest.

Biden's student loan relief plan: It would help borrowers with old loans, ballooning interest

The forgiveness came with conditions, however. For example, the department endorsed wiping away debt for Americans with older federal loans, but those borrowers must have started paying them back before Jan. 1, 2005. For Americans with interest-driven debt, the department said it would forgive – at most – $20,000 in debt beyond what lower-income borrowers took out originally.

Those caps and cutoffs became big sticking points this week.

“This isn’t broad enough,” said Sherrie Gammage, a negotiator representing borrowers who attended four-year programs.

John Whitelaw, a lawyer and advocate for borrowers with disabilities, agreed.

“Why on earth would the department want to limit its ability to provide greater relief when the circumstances warrant?” he asked.

Though the panel did approve some types of relief, it couldn’t agree on those bigger-ticket items.

Student loan borrowers demand President Joe Biden use "Plan B" to cancel student debt Immediately at a rally outside of the Supreme Court, after it rejected his plans for far-reaching student loan forgiveness.
Student loan borrowers demand President Joe Biden use "Plan B" to cancel student debt Immediately at a rally outside of the Supreme Court, after it rejected his plans for far-reaching student loan forgiveness.

“We really understand that you don’t want any caps, and you don’t want cliffs, and you want greater amounts of relief,” said Tamy Abernathy, a policy coordinator for the Education Department.

She added: “All we can do is have differences of opinion.”

What they did agree to: Relief for predatory college grads

From the start of talks, the committee wasn’t likely to fully agree on everything. And the disagreement doesn’t necessarily kill any proposal − it just further slows the whole process.

Despite the other frustrations, Tuesday was a success for one group of borrowers: those who have attended colleges with dubious business practices. The committee approved canceling loan debt for students who attended schools that failed accountability measures set by the federal government, as well as schools that were forced to close (among other types of predatory programs).

Who's student loan debt was cancelled? Biden forgives $5 billion more in student loan balances.

What now?

By Tuesday, many negotiators saw prolonging the talks as the only way forward.

“We should talk about adding an additional session that’s more targeted and more focused than how we've had these discussions so far,” said Kyra Taylor, a lawyer on the panel.

Though not unusual in Washington, extending the negotiations would be a procedural headache for the feds and would further increase the amount of time it takes for Americans to see any new relief.

The Education Department has indicated it hopes to have a proposal finalized by May of next year. It would then need to be aired for public comment before becoming reality.

That timeline could be pushed even further.

Zachary Schermele is a breaking news and education reporter for USA TODAY. You can reach him by email at Follow him on X at @ZachSchermele.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Student loan forgiveness talks end without resolution