The Corner

Politics & Policy

The Burning Higher-Ed Issue — Cancel Student Debts?

Gleeful “progressives” are calling on Biden to issue an executive order on his first day to wipe out student-loan debts. But can the president do that? And if so, is it a good idea?

In today’s Martin Center article, I argue that the legality of such an executive order is highly questionable and that it would be extremely bad policy in any event.

While the Constitution is silent as to executive orders, it is unquestioned that the president may issue directives to his subordinates, instructing them in how they are expected to carry out their functions. But legislative power is exclusively the province of Congress, so executive orders that make (or break) laws should be regarded as illegitimate. There is vague language in the Higher Education Act (itself unconstitutional, as Congress has no authority to meddle in education) giving the secretary of education authority to relieve borrowers of their debts, using that authority to cancel a huge swath of student debts ought to be challenged.

Even if found to be legal (remember that the courts have often turned a blind eye to executive power grabs), debt cancellation is lousy policy. Even leftist economists can see that. The biggest winners would be graduates who borrowed heavily for lustrous credentials and are now using those credentials to make plenty of money. Why shift their debt burden to the taxpayers in general?

Student debt cancellation might be good politics for the Democrats, but it sets a terrible precedent.

George Leef is the the director of editorial content at the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal.