Is it legal for President Joe Biden to issue sweeping student loan forgiveness?

Administration ties authority to HEROES Act, COVID pandemic

President Joe Biden speaks to a crowd in a overflow room at a rally hosted by the Democratic National Committee at Richard Montgomery High School, Thursday, Aug. 25, 2022, in Rockville, Md. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci) (Evan Vucci, Copyright 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved)

More than 40 million Americans could see their student loan debt reduced under the forgiveness plan President Joe Biden announced this week.

In many cases, Americans could see their student loan debt completely eliminated. Biden is erasing $10,000 in federal student loan debt for people with incomes below $125,000 a year, or households that earn less than $250,000. He is canceling another $10,000 for people who received federal Pell Grants to attend college.

View: Complete student loan forgiveness coverage

There have been many questions asked since the announcement was made and we’re working to answer them. You can find more information by viewing this article: Federal student loan debt forgiveness: Answering the most common questions


A commenter left this question for us: “Here’s a question: Does biden (sic) have the authority to implement this program? Or, by chance, is it completely unconstitutional and requires and (sic) Act of Congress to forgive student loan debt? Let’s keep asking this question.”


The Biden administration has tied its authority to cancel student debt to the COVID pandemic and to a 2003 law aimed at providing help to members of the military.

The Associated Press reports that legal challenges are expected. The Justice Department has argued that the HEROES Act of 2003 gives the administration the authority to reduce or eliminate student debt during a national emergency.

The HEROES Act was created in response to the Sept. 11 attacks and provides authority to grant relief from student loans during specific periods. The law was adopted with overwhelming bipartisan support.

The memorandum states that the HEROES Act gives the authority to the Secretary to act in times of national emergency, “cancellation of student debt fits comfortably within the statute’s expansive scope.”

Former President Donald Trump declared a national emergency in March of 2020 due to the COVID pandemic, and that emergency is still in effect.

Both the Trump administration and the Biden administration have used the HEROES Act to pause loan repayments during the COVID pandemic. Through that law, the Biden administration said it was able to develop a program tackling debt cancellation due to financial harms caused by the COVID pandemic.

“The Justice Department’s legal justification seemed to be anticipating criticism that the broad-based debt cancellation might run afoul of Supreme Court rulings, including a June decision limiting the administration’s ability to combat climate change” the Associated Press reported. “In that case, the court declared that when dealing with such ‘major questions,’ the administration must point to clear congressional authorization when it asserts new power over an important part of the economy.”

Chris Walker, a law professor at the University of Michigan, said the argument “seems to tee up nicely -- perhaps inadvertently -- a major questions doctrine challenge as the opinion seems to suggest the agency could forgive all student loans for everyone due to pandemic if agency head deems that necessary.”

But Abby Shafroth, an attorney at the National Consumer Law Center, said a challenge to the loan-forgiveness plan could falter in several ways, including the reference to national emergencies in the 2003 law.

“Today’s action is significant, but not different in kind,” Shafroth told the Associated Press.

Read the full Associated Press report here: Legality of student loan plan relies on pandemic, 2003 law


About the Authors:

Kayla is a Web Producer for ClickOnDetroit. Before she joined the team in 2018 she worked at WILX in Lansing as a digital producer.