White House budget assumes student-debt forgiveness will move forward
Borrowers across the country are in financial limbo as they wait for the Supreme Court to decide whether the White House’s student-debt cancellation plan is legal. But the Biden administration’s own financial planning presumes the initiative will survive the courts.
As part of the Department of Education’s funding request to Congress for $2.7 billion for the Office of Federal Student Aid, officials took the costs and savings into account of President Joe Biden’s plan to cancel up to $20,000 in student debt for a wide swath of borrowers, Undersecretary of Education James Kvaal said on a conference call with reporters Thursday.
The “budget assumes that we will move forward,” with the plan, Kvaal said.
The fiscal-year 2024 funding request unveiled Thursday marks the latest salvo in a battle over the money Congress will give FSA. If the courts allow the Biden administration’s debt-relief plan to move forward, FSA would be charged with implementing it. That’s made FSA funding a flashpoint for congressional Republicans in recent months. But FSA is also responsible for almost every aspect of the financial-aid and student-loan system, something that could be put at risk if the office doesn’t get enough money from Congress.
Biden administration officials didn’t provide much detail on the call with reporters about how debt cancellation impacted the Department of Education’s request for funding for FSA. Implementing the debt-relief plan would likely be a cost, but wiping borrowers off the books could also save the agency money because there would be fewer accounts to deal with.
“My assumption is that if you take cancellation into account, the budget request would be smaller than it would be if you assume cancellation is not happening,” said Sarah Sattelmeyer, the project director for education, opportunity and mobility in the Higher Education Initiative at New America, a think tank.
That could create challenges if the court strikes down debt cancellation, she said. “The bottom line is, really we need to make sure there are sufficient resources for any situation that might happen with FSA,” she said. “That’s the most important because when there aren’t sufficient funds, students and borrowers bear the brunt of that.”
Like the IRS, FSA may not ‘seem sexy,’ but it’s important
Though FSA is not a household name, the office is in charge of all sorts of seemingly wonky tasks that touch almost every student and borrower. FSA oversees the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, which college students use to apply for loans and grants; it disperses student loans to borrowers; manages the companies collecting student-loan payments; monitors colleges for wrongdoing and more.
That’s why many researchers and student-loan borrower advocates were concerned when Congress level-funded FSA last year, despite a request from the Department of Education for an uptick of $800 million. Congressional Republicans touted the decision as providing “no new funding for the implementation of the Biden administration’s student-loan forgiveness plan.”
Dominique Baker, an associate professor of education policy at Southern Methodist University, compared FSA to the Internal Revenue Service. “It doesn’t always seem sexy,” to lawmakers to increase funding for these types of bodies, she said, but a lack of funds can have a real impact.
She cited delays in borrowers qualifying for relief under already existing programs as one impact of an underfunded FSA. Last year, the Department of Education said that student-loan servicers weren’t properly tracking the number of payments borrowers made toward qualifying for forgiveness under certain student-loan repayment plans.
“It is important to ensure that college is affordable,” Baker said. “It is sometimes easier to talk about funding pieces that make college more affordable than it is to talk about compliance and regulatory bodies that are ensuring that this one piece of paper that gets shuffled over to this other desk happens in a timely manner.” If it doesn’t, she added, “you will accidentally pay five months of extra loan payments past when your debt should have been canceled.”
Over the past few years, FSA has been asked to do even more than what’s typically required. Many of the Biden administration’s initiatives to improve the student-loan experience, including making it easier for borrowers to access Public Service Loan Forgiveness and proposing sweeping changes to the way borrowers repay their student loans, fall under FSA’s purview.
In addition, FSA is in the middle of overhauling its student-loan servicing contracts in an aim to provide a better experience for borrowers. Things like giving more direction to student-loan servicers about how they communicate with borrowers about their loans, and ensuring student-loan companies are more responsive to issues borrowers and regulators have raised in litigation, are part of that effort and will require resources, said Clare McCann, a higher-education fellow at Arnold Ventures.
“All of that is incredibly important to making sure borrowers are going to have a smooth transition back into repayment, when that does happen,” she said.
It’s too early to say which of these priorities could be at risk because of Congress’ decision to level-fund FSA last year, Sattelmeyer said. “We don’t have a great idea yet of the tradeoffs FSA is going to make, but they’re going to have to make tradeoffs,” she said.
For fiscal-year 2024, the Biden administration has asked for a $620 million increase over the amount that Congress enacted for fiscal-year 2023. And if FSA doesn’t get that funding increase, researchers and advocates worry the office will continue to have to make tradeoffs that could hurt students and borrowers.
“D.C. is and remains a political town,” Sattelmeyer said of the possibility that the department’s funding increase for FSA could fall victim to the same forces that scuttled it last year. “I can’t predict the future, but I can say that it is really important to message,” through the budget, “that FSA needs additional resources,” she said. “It’s also important for practitioners and advocates and others in this space to be pushing for additional resources.”
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