President Obama signed an executive order Monday that could extend student debt relief to an additional 5 million people — a move aimed in part at better educating young borrowers of their rights while jumpstarting a moribund debate on the issue in Congress.
The order directs the Secretary of Education to increase eligibility for the Pay As You Earn repayment plan (PAYE), which caps certain federal-student-loan payments at 10 percent of a borrower’s income and writes off any unpaid debt after 20 years, or 10 years for those working in the public interest. To date, PAYE has only been available to people experiencing financial hardship who applied for federal loans after October 2007 and continued borrowing after October 2011, and only 200,000 people are currently enrolled. But by the end of 2015, following a lengthy rulemaking process, millions more borrowers could be eligible to apply.
President Obama put forth a raft of other, softer recommendations focused on educating borrowers about their rights before, during and after school, and encouraged voters to demand further action from Congress — namely to pass a student-loan-refinancing bill introduced in early May by Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., in the Senate and John Tierney, D-Mass., in the House.
It is thought that a new version of the bill could be introduced as early as this week.
“The average borrower at a four-year college owes nearly $30,000 by graduation day,” the President said, flanked by young graduates, before signing the executive order. He noted that closing loopholes that allow millionaires to pay a lower tax rate than middle-class families could help pay for more relief for hard-pushed students and graduates.
“I don’t know why folks aren’t more outraged about this. ... It would be scandalous if we allowed those kinds of tax loopholes for the very, very fortunate to survive while students are having trouble just getting started in their lives.” Total student debt nationwide — estimated at $1.2 trillion — has now eclipsed credit card debt.
According to Mark Huelsman, senior policy analyst at the liberal Demos think tank, the President’s speech was more about mobilizing public sentiment than providing relief. “The take-up rate has been fairly low in programs [such as PAYE],” Huelsman said. “The White House is using its bully pulpit to show that this option [PAYE] is available for current borrowers.”
“Fiddling with interest rates or with repayment options is so far below the level of response that is needed,” New York University professor and Strike Debt activist Andrew Ross said. He and other “debt resistors” have instead advocated a yearly government investment of $13 billion “to put the U.S. on the long list of industrialized countries that make it their business to offer free public education.”
But Republicans in the House and Senate uniformly oppose much less radical measures, including the Bank on Students Emergency Loan Refinancing Act sponsored by Senator Warren. Legislation tracking website GovTrack.us gives the bill a 1 percent chance of getting past committee and a zero percent chance of being enacted.
President Obama’s executive order "was not a thought-out policy solution, but another in a series of political events designed to distract from the difficulties facing college grads in the Obama economy," said Don Stewart, a spokesman for Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky, in response to the speech.
On Tuesday, the President will follow up on his speech with a live question-and-answer session about “education, college access and reducing student loan debt” on the social media site Tumblr.