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Education Secretary says US to use 'whatever pathway we can' on student loan relief

Updated July 3, 2023 at 4:00 PM ET

Almost immediately after the Supreme Court struck down the administration's student loan forgiveness plan, President Joe Biden and Education Secretary Miguel Cardona fought back.

Hours after the ruling, the White House announced three debt relief proposals: create a legal workaround to debt forgiveness, institute an income-driven repayment plan and establish an "on-ramp" for borrowers to ease back into making monthly payments that were suspended during the pandemic.

The Department of Education, which Cardona heads, will have to lead the charge on the measures. More than two-thirds of its budget goes to student aid programs like loans and grants.

The department has already finalized Saving on a Valuable Education (SAVE), an income-driven repayment plan aimed at cutting borrowers' monthly payments in half and ensuring a borrower's balance doesn't grow from unpaid monthly interests. Anyone repaying their student loans is eligible to enroll this summer before loan payments start back up.

Cardona also started a process that would allow him to cancel or reduce loans in certain circumstances under the Higher Education Act.

"We're going to keep fighting. We believe the Supreme Court got it completely wrong. We believe that they were ideological plaintiffs," Cardona told Morning Edition.

The Department's on-ramp to repayment will span Oct. 1, 2023 to Sept. 30, 2024, when "financially vulnerable" borrowers who miss payments will not be reported to credit bureaus or have their loans placed in default, considered delinquent or referred to debt collection agencies.

"We're going to move forward using whatever pathway we can to provide that relief," Cardona said in a conversation with NPR's Steve Inskeep.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

Steve Inskeep: Would you tell the millions of borrowers, some of whom may be listening now, 'Don't worry, we got this. You're not going to be saddled with this student debt. It's going to get fixed.'?

Miguel Cardona: My message to borrowers is this: We're not done fighting.

Would you reassure them (borrowers) that they don't need to plan on paying back those loans?

Of course not.

What I want to reassure them is that there's one team that is fighting for them and there's a team that's trying to block them. And the team that's trying to block them have received millions in debt forgiveness themselves. So the hypocrisy really speaks for itself. We're going to keep fighting for them. We recognize higher education should be accessible to more people in this country, and you shouldn't be settled in debt for the rest of your life. That's what we're fighting for.

The Supreme Court said it is unconstitutional for elite universities to use race as a factor in choosing which students to admit. What advice would you give universities across the country?

In this country, we're okay with taking into account wealth and lineage and legacy status, but to look at racial balance in school, to make sure that there are diverse learning environments, that people have a problem with, that we're not taking that lightly either.

Within 45 days, we're going to have guidance for college presidents. We're going to do a national convening, a national summit on education opportunity at the Department of Education, and then we're going to publish best practices so that college presidents and board of trustees can learn from one another on how to maintain a diverse student body. We know that when students learn in a diverse student body, they get a better education. Everyone benefits from that.

So your goal is to continue pushing for diversity even after the Supreme Court has said that is wrong, at least the way you've been doing it?

Absolutely. And the Supreme Court didn't say it was wrong. The Supreme Court took away a tool that we used to promote racial diversity. So it was a tool, meaning using race when all things are equal. And we have candidates that have earned their way into the campus and they have to decide between students using race as a factor to determine racial balance. So, it doesn't touch the intent. Our intent is stronger than ever to make sure that all students have access.

The digital version of this story was edited by Lisa Lambert. contributed to this story

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Destinee Adams
Destinee Adams (she/her) is a temporary news assistant for Morning Edition and Up First. In May 2022, a month before joining Morning Edition, she earned a bachelor's degree in Multimedia Journalism at Oklahoma State University. During her undergraduate career, she interned at the Stillwater News Press (Okla.) and participated in NPR's Next Generation Radio. In 2020, she wrote about George Floyd's impact on Black Americans, and in the following years she covered transgender identity and unpopular Black history in the South. Adams was born and raised in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma.
Steve Inskeep
Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.