Student-loan borrowers could be waiting over a year for Biden to implement his new plan for broad debt relief

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Student-loan borrowers could be waiting over a year for Biden to implement his new plan for broad debt relief
President Joe Biden and Education Secretary Miguel Cardona.Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
  • Biden is going through negotiated rulemaking to implement his new student-debt relief plan.
  • It recently took his Education Department 15 months to go through that process.
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Student-loan forgiveness might not reach borrowers anytime soon.

After the Supreme Court struck down President Joe Biden's first attempt to cancel student debt using the HEROES Act of 2003, the Education Department announced it would be trying again — this time using the Higher Education Act of 1965.

The HEROES Act allowed the administration to move quickly with the relief, as the law said the education secretary could waive or modify student loans in connection with a national emergency. While the high court ruled that Biden overreached in his authority by using that law for broad student-debt relief, it did not rule out the Higher Education Act as an alternative route to get debt cancellation to borrowers.

The law says the Education Department can "enforce, pay, compromise, waive, or release any right, title, claim, lien, or demand" related to federal student debt. But that law requires Biden to go through the negotiated-rulemaking process. Before the department implements a policy, it has to post its proposal on the Federal Register to allow the public to comment on it. That initial proposal is known as a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking. Once the department publishes its proposal, it holds a public hearing on it and then undergoes a series of negotiations with stakeholders and experts until all parties reach a consensus on the regulation.

That process has historically taken a long time, meaning that the new attempt at broad student-debt relief may not arrive for a while.

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There is no set timeline for the department to complete this process, and it has varied in the past. But under the Biden administration, the fastest negotiated-rulemaking process for a series of higher-education reforms started in August 2021, and the official rule was published at the beginning of November, totaling about 15 months.

Of course, the timeline for this new plan for student-debt relief could be quicker, and Education Department officials have said they will work as fast as they can under the process to get relief to borrowers. The timeline also does not account for any litigation that could arise.

"We want to help borrowers who were let down by the fundamental bargain of federal student loans — that investments in yourself and your education will help lead you to a better life," Under Secretary of Education James Kvaal said during a Tuesday public hearing. "By those who have seen their debts get out of hand, even as they make the payments we ask of them, we will help as many borrowers as possible, and we will work as quickly as possible under the law."

What comes next

The department held the public hearing on Biden's new debt relief plan on Tuesday, during which department officials heard from borrowers, advocates, and experts on how they thought the proposal should be shaped.

It's now in the process of selecting negotiators. Negotiators are nominated by the public and selected by the department, which will solicit nominations via the Federal Register. According to the website, negotiators could include "students, legal assistance organizations that represent students, institutions of higher education, state student grant agencies, guaranty agencies, lenders, secondary markets, loan servicers, guaranty agency servicers, collection agencies, state agencies, and accrediting agencies."

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Once negotiating committees are formed, they will meet for three sessions at monthly intervals, and each session usually lasts three days, but the number of sessions could change depending on how the negotiations play out. For negotiators to reach a consensus on the debt-relief proposal, every member of the committee must agree with the final rule. Once that happens, the department will again publish the text of the rule on the Federal Register for public comment, and it will consider the comments before publishing the final rule.

During the negotiated rulemaking, the department is set to facilitate the return to repayment for borrowers beginning in October, with interest starting to accrue again in September. There will be a 12-month "on-ramp" period during which borrowers who miss payments will not be reported to credit agencies, along with a new income-driven repayment plan to lower borrowers' monthly payments.

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