The Fight for Affordable Access to Higher Ed Continues

In a 6–3 decision today in Biden v. Nebraska, the US Supreme Court struck down the Biden administration’s student-loan-relief plan, proposed in 2022, to erase up to ten thousand dollars of student-loan debt for millions of individuals, and up to twenty thousand dollars for those with family incomes low enough to make them eligible for Pell Grants. The court’s Republican majority held that in authorizing the debt-relief program, the secretary of education exceeded his authority under the Higher Education Relief Opportunities for Students (HEROES) Act, a law passed by Congress in 2003. The majority concluded that the partial loan-forgiveness plan was too large and expansive to be considered a “waiver” or “modification” of the existing statutory provisions related to student loan programs. 

In striking down the plan, the court majority ignored the broad statutory authority that Congress explicitly granted the secretary of education under the HEROES Act and substituted its own policy judgment for that of elected officials. The HEROES Act expressly gives the secretary broad authority to respond to national emergencies—like the COVID-19 pandemic—including the power to “waive or modify any statutory or regulatory provision” applicable to student-loan programs. After concluding that lower-income borrowers would be at heightened risk of delinquency and default if the across-the-board pause put in place at the beginning of the pandemic were lifted, the secretary decided to exercise this authority and deployed the HEROES Act to safeguard borrowers by extending the pause and offering expanded relief.

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 in support of the Biden administration’s efforts to grant much-needed relief to individuals holding student loan debt, given the immense economic hardships created by the COVID-19 pandemic. The brief noted 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 argued that canceling 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.

This decision is yet another disturbing exercise of raw power by the Republican-appointed majority on the Supreme Court and calls into further question its adherence to fundamental norms of judicial behavior. It comes on the heels of the court’s opinion yesterday in Students for Fair Admissions v. Harvard and Students for Fair Admissions v. University of North Carolina, which the AAUP called in a statement a “blow to long-standing efforts of universities to ensure that students of all races have equal access to higher education.” Together, these opinions send the message that policies seeking to mitigate inequities in our higher education system will be subject to rigid judicial scrutiny by the conservative court majority. 

Although the Biden administration’s limited debt-relief program was not a solution to the crisis of affordability in higher education, it was an important step toward acknowledging and alleviating the burdens so many face because of the high cost of attending both public and private colleges and universities. The AAUP will continue to fight for debt cancellation and affordable access to higher education for all students.

See also the AFT press release on the decision.

Publication Date: 
Friday, June 30, 2023