WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court this week heard arguments about the Biden administration’s plan to provide student debt relief, questioning the survival of a proposal that has far-reaching implications.
The executive measure the government announced in August ahead of the fall 2022 election (in part to cheer on younger voters) could provide debt relief for tens of millions of Americans and cost more than $400 billion.
But judging by this week’s court session, there’s a very real possibility that the judges will reject the proposal later this year when they issue their opinion.
And when that happens, there will be many disaffected voters across the country in 2024, including some in key battleground states.
In recent decades, student debt has become a problem for many who attend college, in large part because college costs continue to rise.
That year, the average tuition and fees for a year at a private four-year college was $39,400, according to the College Board. In 1992, the average cost of a private school, adjusted for inflation, was $21,860. That’s an increase of just over 80% over that time.
At an average four-year public college, the yearly cost of tuition and fees was $10,940 that year, according to the College Board. This equates to $4,870 in 1992 (again, adjusted for inflation). That’s an increase of about 125% over that time.
And remember, these numbers don’t include room and board, which typically add more than $10,000 to that price. In other words, the days of “working through college” are increasingly looking like ancient history to most students.
Collectively, these costs add up to more than $1.6 trillion in student loan debt in the US economy.
This summer, the Biden administration offered a targeted approach to address at least some of that debt among those who met certain income requirements: individuals earning less than $125,000 or couples earning less than $250,000 .
The proposal would have reduced up to $20,000 in debt for students who received Pell Grants – those who demonstrated “extraordinary financial needs” when they went to college. It also offered up to $10,000 in debt relief for students who did not receive Pell Scholarships.
The question before the court is whether such a plan could only be implemented by an act of Congress and whether the administration exceeded its powers by proposing it. And the questions asked by the judges certainly indicated that they were skeptical about the plan.
But whatever the court decides, the response from those affected by student debt has been swift and massive. In the four weeks that the program was open (before it was frozen due to the Supreme Court case), more than 26 million Americans from every state applied to enter or were told they qualified, the state said Administration.
In California and Texas, more than 2 million applications have been made or notified. More than 1 million applied or were notified in Florida, New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Illinois and Georgia. Overall, 43 states had 100,000 or more people who applied for the program or were notified that they qualified.
Those are big numbers for just four weeks, a sign of real interest and impact among people feeling burdened by student debt.
And given the trend of close elections in recent years, all of that interest can carry a lot.
The current trend in American politics is one of close elections and a sharply divided electorate. A few thousand votes in one direction or another can shift the balance of power. And if you look at the closest states in the 2020 presidential campaign, you’ll see a lot of overlap with student debt program applications.
There were eight states where the 2020 election between President Joe Biden and Donald Trump was decided by less than 4 points. Seven of them saw more than 400,000 student loan applications.
In Florida (Trump +3.5 points), Pennsylvania (Biden +1.2 points), and Georgia (Biden +0.22 points), all more than 1 million applied for the student debt relief program or were notified, that they qualify for it.
Michigan (Biden +2.8 points) and North Carolina (Trump +1.3 points) each saw more than 800,000 people in this group. And Arizona (Biden +0.3 points) and Wisconsin (Biden +0.6 points) had more than 400,000 residents.
That’s not to say student debt is just a political issue. There are millions of people for whom this topic is very real.
But in reality, the student debt relief plan was in part a political move, a proposal aimed at cheering younger voters and getting them to vote. And it may have helped the Democrats. Turnout among younger voters was up in key states in 2022, and Republicans generally had a lackluster midterm.
In 2024, how do the 26 million people who would benefit from the program feel about it – angry, frustrated, apathetic? In another close election, the answer to that question could carry a lot of weight.