Obama’s Education Secretary John King on Forgiveness of $50,000 in Student Loan Debt

  • John King is the first former Education Secretary to seek broad student debt forgiveness.
  • King, who served under Obama, told Insider Biden had the power to forgive $50,000 in student debt.
  • King said the pandemic has reinforced the need to provide relief and correct “a political mistake”.

Former President Barack Obama’s education secretary recently became the first with that headline to call for broad student debt cancellation.

And he thinks President Joe Biden can shoot higher than the $10,000 loan forgiveness per borrower he promised on the campaign trail.

“Senator Warren and Senator Schumer’s proposal makes a lot of sense,” John King told Insider, referring to the plan he supports, which was introduced by two of the most vocal lawmakers on the issue. “If you were to move to $50,000 in debt forgiveness, that would completely relieve over 36 million Americans. So that would definitely be a big step forward.”

In an opinion piece for Insider last month, King explained why Biden can and should write off student debt. In a later interview with Insider, he elaborated, explaining that the pandemic presents a unique case for student loan relief compared to his time as Obama’s education secretary. Although payments have been suspended for two years, borrowers need more, King said. May 1 is too early to stick 43 million student debtors with another monthly bill, lawyers and lawmakers say.

King said that as the country recovers from the pandemic, now is the perfect time to correct the lack of investment in higher education that created the $1.7 trillion student debt crisis.

“We have a very different context today, with the COVID economic crisis and the possibility of coming out of this crisis with really a New Deal moment where we address deeper systemic challenges,” King said. “Higher education should be considered a public good, and we all benefit when students access and complete post-secondary education.”

“Now is really the time to correct a political error”

King, who is now running for governor of Maryland, said the lack of free community colleges, along with limited aid for low-income students, is a policy failure that needs to be corrected. He noted in particular the Pell Scholarship, which is a scholarship for college students that used to account for about 80% of the cost of a college education in the 1980s, but now covers less than a third due to soaring tuition fees.

“Now really is the time to correct a policy mistake of the last 40 years in terms of federal and state divestment, especially from public higher education,” King said.

Portrait of John B. King Jr.

John B. King Jr.

John B. King Jr.


Free community college was something King had hoped to achieve under Obama, and he said it was disappointing that it couldn’t happen due to a Republican majority in Congress. But it’s something that’s on Biden’s agenda, along with increasing the maximum Pell Grant to make colleges more accessible to low-income students.

“I will,” Biden said during a CNN town hall in October, referring to the free community college. “And if I don’t, I’ll be sleeping alone for a long time,” he said, likely referring to his wife, Dr. Jill Biden, who is a community college educator.

Tying a tuition-free community college to broad student loan relief is an idea that a number of lawmakers have floated to keep debt from mounting after possible forgiveness. Michigan Rep. Andy Levin previously told Insider that tying the policy measure to student debt relief “solves the current problem and tries to prevent it from becoming such a problem in the future.”

‘The authority is there’ for Biden to cancel student debt

During his tenure, King also worked with Obama to reform forgiveness for students defrauded by for-profit schools and to ensure monthly payments were affordable for borrowers through income-driven repayment plans.

While Biden has also made progress in those two areas, as well as canceling debt for disabled borrowers, he has yet to deliver on his campaign promise to cancel debt at scale. The White House has repeatedly said that if Congress sent Biden a bill to cancel student debt, he would be happy to sign it. But when it comes to acting on the issue with the help of an executive order, Biden expressed hesitation at the idea and asked the Department of Education to prepare a memo on his legal ability to act. largely wipe out student debt.

Biden has yet to release the contents of the memo, so while borrowers won’t know if broad relief is forthcoming, King thinks the memo should state that the authority is authorized under the higher education law.

“I think the consensus of lawyers who have looked at this issue is that the authority is there,” King said. “And the president during the campaign talked about his commitment to cancel the debt. And so now is the time to follow through on that campaign promise.”

Biden’s campaign pledge to approve a $10,000 loan forgiveness for each federal borrower has yet to be fulfilled, and while some Democrats want to see him canceled up to $50,000 before payments resume on May 1, Republican lawmakers say broad relief would hurt the economy and taxpayers. King said the government could afford the relief – and now was the time to do so.

Do you have a story to share on student debt? Contact Ayelet Sheffey at [email protected]

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