Elizabeth Warren says she will use presidential authority to cancel student loan debt if elected

Democratic presidential candidate Senator Elizabeth Warren.
Democratic presidential candidate Senator Elizabeth Warren.Nic Antaya for The Boston Globe

Senator Elizabeth Warren announced Tuesday that if elected president, she will use executive authority to cancel student loan debt on her first day in office.

Warren introduced a sweeping plan in April to forgive massive amounts of student loan debt for middle-class Americans, but her new proposal argues that the Department of Education already has “broad legal authority” to cancel student debt without Congressional approval.

The Secretary of Education has unrestricted authority to cancel existing student loan debt under the Higher Education Act, legal experts at Harvard Law School’s Legal Services Center wrote in response to the plan.

“This authority provides a safety valve for federal student loan programs, letting the Department of Education use its discretion to wipe away loans even when they do not meet the eligibility criteria for more specific cancellation programs like permanent disability discharge,” Warren said in the plan, released ahead of Tuesday night’s Democratic presidential debate in Iowa.

Under the plan, Warren would cancel up to $50,000 in debt for about 42 million borrowers as well as ensure that the loan cancellation won’t be taxed as income.


The Higher Education Act has more loan cancellation programs that aren’t being fully used by the Trump administration, Warren said. They include allowances for students whose college closed or for those whose colleges defrauded them.

Warren plans to make access to those loan cancellation programs easier by simplifying application processes, matching borrowers with their discharge options and automatically canceling debts, among others. She estimates these programs alone could bring relief to an additional 1.75 million borrowers.

The executive authority plan speeds up the debt forgiveness process, Warren said, but she “won’t stop fighting for Congress to enact the rest of my college affordability plan.” To pay for it and many other of her campaign plans, she’s proposed an “Ultra-Millionaire Tax” that would impose a 2 percent tax on wealth above $50 million and an additional 1 percent on wealth above $1 billion.


In addition to canceling student debt using administrative authority, Warren also said she would take action as president to make college more affordable and close racial gaps in access to higher education.

To do so, she proposed that the Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights investigate how the student loan industry creates racial disparities in loan outcomes.

“Where my administration identifies illegal discrimination, I will not hesitate to enforce the law to its fullest,” Warren said.

She has already spoken out in favor of ending federal financial aid to for-profit colleges, but now is announcing that she will do so even if Congress won’t take action on legislation she has introduced by bringing back protections against for-profit colleges that the Trump administration scaled back.

Warren is not the only Democratic presidential candidate to roll out college affordability and student loan debt reform plans. Other candidates have similarly called for student loan debt cancellation, tuition-free community college, Pell Grant expansion and a crackdown on for-profit schools.