September 9, 2022
By: David A. Bergeron
Nearly a decade ago, the U.S. Department of Education published a notice under the Higher Education Relief Opportunities for Students Act of 2003 (HEROES Act) which promised relief to people impacted by military operations or national emergency including those who:
· served on active duty during a war or other military operation or national emergency;
· performed National Guard duty during a war or other military operation or national emergency;
· resided or is employed in an area that is declared a disaster area by any Federal, State, or local official in connection with a national emergency; or
· suffered direct economic hardship as a direct result of a war or other military operation or national emergency, as determined by the Secretary.
I vividly recall signing that notice when I was serving as the Acting Assistant Secretary for Postsecondary Education. Helping patriotic Americans that were doing the right thing for the nation, their community, and their families was why many of us serve in government.
This wasn’t the first notice published under the HEROES Act. After all, the act had been signed into law in 2003 and was almost immediately used by President George Bush to make it easier for those deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan. The notice I signed extended some relief granted in 2003, discontinued some of the relief granted in the original notice, and added to the relief that was granted. Again, this relief was targeted at assisting those deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan who either had student loans or other federal student aid awarded under Title IV of the Higher Education Act of 1965, as amended. None of the additions were as sweeping or impactful as the relief announced by President Biden that would cancel up to $20,000 in federal student loan debt.
Personally, I have argued against using the HEROES authority to unilaterally cancel student loan debt. I would prefer such an action to come through specific legislative action debated on the floor of both the House and Senate, passed by both chambers, and signed into law by President Biden. Why I believe that was important is a discussion for another day.
However, the HEROES authority is sweeping in scope and does specifically envision providing relief to those who suffered direct economic hardship as a direct result of a national emergency. There is also no question that then President Trump declared a national emergency on March 13, 2020.
The only real question, then, is did student loan borrowers suffer economic hardship as a direct result of the national emergency? Clearly, they have been. Between 2019 and 2020, college graduates as well as those with some college but no degree saw their incomes decline by roughly 3 percent. More recently, we have all seen the cost of everyday goods and service increase by 8.5% reducing the purchasing power of every dollar earned.
We can debate whether it would be better to give everyone help to compensate for the loss of purchasing power but one cannot argue that those being provided relief under President Biden’s student loan cancellation did not suffer economic hardship as a direct result of the national emergency declared by then President Trump in March 2020.
Would it be better to offer relief to everyone negatively impact? Absolutely. But that is not the question. President Biden doesn’t have the authority to help everyone negatively impacted by the COVID-19 emergency but he does havethe authority to help student loan borrowers. And that is what he intends to do.
In some quarters, that would be called “rough justice”. I prefer to call it helping patriotic American that did the right thing by going to a trade or technical school, or college or university to strengthen our nation, our communities, and their families.
David A. Bergeron is a senior fellow for postsecondary education at the Center for American Progress. Bergeron previously served as the acting assistant secretary for postsecondary education at the U.S. Department of Education.
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