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Published: Nov 24, 2020 9 min read
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Momentum is building for President-Elect Joe Biden to take a dramatic step by single-handedly forgiving some portion of the country’s student debt.

Biden campaigned on two different proposals to eliminate debt for some of the country's 45 million borrowers. But if Democrats don't take control of the Senate by winning two run-off elections in Georgia in January, Biden's options to achieve those campaign promises via legislation will be exceedingly slim.

So instead, there's a growing contingent, including some prominent Democratic lawmakers, that is encouraging the president to cancel debt without asking Congress for permission. Last week, more than 235 organizations issued a letter pushing for the same. A recent Politico-Morning Consult poll found 26% of Americans thought cancelling $10,000 of student loans was a "top priority" during Biden's first 100 days. Another 28% said it was "an important, but lower priority."

But cancelling debt via executive authority is still a controversial — and legally unprecedented — move.

The idea that a president can cancel student debt comes from language in the Higher Education Act that gives the secretary of education the power to run the federal loan system, including the powers to "enforce, pay, compromise, waive, or release any right, claim, liens, or demand," under the program. Lawyers with the Legal Services Center at Harvard Law School have deemed that clause legal justification for an education secretary to cancel student debt without Congress's input. Others think the law only gives the secretary the authority to forgive debt on a case-by-case basis, and that a single, massive sweep would require Congressional action. It's possible the move would lead to legal challenges in court.