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Biden v. Nebraska, No. 22-506 (U.S. Sup. Ct. amicus brief filed Jan. 11, 2023)

The AAUP joined the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) in filing an amicus brief on January 11, 2023, in the US Supreme Court in support of the Biden administration’s efforts to grant much-needed relief to individuals holding student loan debt. The amicus brief argues that a plan announced by the secretary of education in August 2022 to partially forgive student loans for certain eligible borrowers is a lawful exercise of authority granted by Congress in the 2003 Higher Education Relief Opportunities for Students (HEROES) Act, given the immense economic hardships created by the COVID-19 pandemic. The brief notes in particular the severe financial impact that COVID-19 has had on US teachers and nurses, as well as student borrowers in general. The brief also argues that cancelling student debt best serves the purposes of the HEROES Act because of the long-lasting nature of the pandemic’s harms and because permanent relief will best facilitate the recovery of the public service sector.

The case arises from the secretary of education’s determination in August 2022 that when the across-the-board pause on student loan payments that had been in effect since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic comes to an end and repayment obligations resume, lower-income borrowers will be at heightened risk of delinquency and default because of the continuing economic consequences of the pandemic. The secretary therefore directed the Department of Education to issue up to $10,000 in student-loan relief to eligible borrowers with annual incomes under $125,000 (or $250,000 for married couples or heads of household). Qualifying Pell Grant recipients, who are at even greater risk of default, can receive up to $20,000 in relief. This relief, the secretary found, is necessary to ensure that delinquency and default rates among these borrowers will not spike above prepandemic levels. In 2003, Congress enacted the HEROES Act, which specifically authorizes the secretary of education to waive or modify any otherwise applicable statutory or regulatory provisions as he deems necessary to ensure that borrowers affected by a national emergency are not placed in a worse position with respect to their student loans. Faced with the COVID-19 outbreak and its ongoing financial impact, both the Trump and Biden administrations used the HEROES Act to pause repayment obligations and suspend interest accrual on all federally held student loans since March 2020. Following the Biden administration’s announcement of this new plan, however, six Republican-led states filed a lawsuit seeking to stop its implementation. A federal district court threw out the lawsuit after finding that the states lacked standing to sue, but a federal appeals court revived the lawsuit and has temporarily enjoined the plan’s implementation pending a final decision on appeal. The Biden administration has sought further review in the Supreme Court, which has agreed to hear argument in the case on February 28, 2023.

The brief notes that AAUP members include many student loan borrowers employed as faculty members at higher education institutions and other academic professionals dedicated to carrying out the public mission of colleges and universities. Jointly filed with the AFT and AFSCME, the brief emphasizes that “student debt cancellation is essential for American workers, including teachers, faculty members, nurses, and government workers, who are struggling to overcome financial setbacks caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.”

In arguing that the Biden administration’s student loan relief plan is authorized by the HEROES Act, the brief explains that “the COVID‑19 pandemic had a devastating impact on American workers, many of whom were already struggling and saddled with crushing student debt.” It notes that “public service workers, such as teachers and nurses, who must invest significant sums in their education and work at low wages, were hit by tremendous professional and personal strains during the pandemic, which jeopardized their livelihoods and ability to pay their student debt.” The brief stresses in particular the financial challenges that the pandemic has created for college and university faculty members who hold student loan debt. Drawing on several individual accounts and AAUP reports, the brief explains that the pandemic “has deepened the already substantial financial hardships and employment instability of adjuncts and other university faculty.”

The brief also contends that outright cancellation of student debt better serves the aims of the HEROES Act than does continued forbearance or other temporary relief measures. It notes the wide range of “ill effects that will last far beyond the pandemic, including business closures, job loss, pay cuts, COVID-19-related medical bills, and individuals being forced to take on even more debt to cover these unexpected financial hits,” as well as “the millions of Americans who lost a spouse or family member to COVID-19,” who “know all too personally that the consequences of losing a loved one are not temporary” and that “a sudden shift from a dual- to a single-income household adds unexpected financial burdens.” In addition, the brief calls attention to the fact that student debt cancellation will “hasten the recovery of the broader public service sector following pandemic-driven workforce losses by helping to attract and retain talented workers.” Among other benefits, the Biden administration’s plan “will reduce the burden of high educational costs, one of the main barriers keeping talented professionals from entering public service work.”