Unfortunately for President Biden and millions of federal student loan debt holders, things are not looking great for the White House’s debt forgiveness plan.
On Tuesday, the Supreme Court began oral arguments in the two cases that could determine the future of the program and, with it, the fates of millions of borrowers. And based on the current conservative make-up of the court, coupled with some rather pointed questions from the Justices, experts warn not to expect your student loan accounts to flash to zero anytime soon.
The fallout from this decision could be particularly painful for Black borrowers, who hold a disproportionate amount of student debt.
“Millions of people’s lives are at stake,” explains Justin Hansford, a Law Professor at Howard University. “It’s a huge racial justice issue, it’s a huge issue around economic inequality, and the stakes could not be higher.”
What’s at Stake In The Student Debt Case
It’s worth talking about what’s being challenged in this case. The Supreme Court is currently hearing arguments for two separate but connected cases challenging the legitimacy of Biden’s student loan forgiveness plan.
Biden’s plan would eliminate $10,000 of federal student loan debt for borrowers making under $125,000 a year and $20,000 for pell grant recipients.
Even though people were able to successfully apply for debt relief, the program has been on hold thanks to legal challenges that are now before the Supreme Court. If the court rules against the White House, the program could be indefinitely on hold.
Why Should Black Americans Care?
Alright, so we’ve established that debt relief could be caput. So why should Black Americans care?
“[Race] is at the core of this issue,” says Paul Henderson, a trial attorney who formerly sat on the California State Bar Committee on Student Debt. “The implication from having this decided [against Biden] is going to disproportionately hurt communities of color.”
Thanks to this pesky thing called systemic inequality Black Americans are much more likely to take on federal student loan debt than our peers. Roughly 90 percent of Black students take on student loan debt, compared to 66 percent of white students, according to the Student Borrower Protection Center.
Black women have it the worst. On average, Black women hold $38,000 in federal student loan debt, according to the Education Trust. And Black women with master’s degrees have $58,000 in student loan debt.
So while $10,000 to $20,000 in debt forgiveness wouldn’t completely solve the problem for most Black borrowers, it would take a massive chunk out of the problem.
Do We Know How the Court Will Rule?
No one knows with 100% certainty how the Supreme Court will rule, but legal experts say they’re giving a ton of hints.
“There’s no ambiguity about where they’re leaning,” says Henderson, who also sits on the board of Take Back The Court. “They really want to challenge or override what the Biden-Harris administration is doing.”
Hansford agrees with Henderson that things don’t look good for proponents of student debt relief. “President Biden has not had a good record so far when it comes to having his policy challenged in the Supreme Court,” says Hansford.
The fact that the court decided to hear the case speaks volumes, says Henderson, but the questions from the conservative side of the court are also telling.
Chief Justice John Roberts, who is considered somewhat of a swing vote, called into question whether the President has the power to enact Student debt relief.
“Many Americans on a subject that’s of great controversy, they would think that’s something for Congress to act on,” said Roberts in oral arguments on Tuesday.
Both Henderson and Hansford quibble with Robert’s accusation that Biden stepped outside of his authority, pointing to the 2020 Heroes Act that explicitly gave Presidents greater authority over student loans and aid.
“From a separation of powers perspective,” says Hansford. “The White House should be able to make policy on something like the student loan issue.”
Roberts also questioned whether it was fair to forgive loans for someone who took out loans for school versus someone who took out loans to, say, start a lawn mowing company.
“Nobody’s telling the person who is trying to set up the lawn service business that he doesn’t have to pay his loan,” said Roberts.
To Henderson, the question is more than a little hypocritical.
“Where was this outcry and frustration...when the harm imposed was in other areas that weren’t colored by race,” says Henderson. “When we had reforms for the bank industry, where is the outcry when we had reforms for the car industry? Or the airline industry? We had bailouts for all of them, with none of the same arguments being made.”