WASHINGTON — Not long after President Biden on Friday celebrated that nearly 22 million people had applied for his student loan cancellation plan, a federal appeals court temporarily blocked the administration from discharging any debt.
The stay by the US Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit blunted the momentum the program has gained since the online application went live on Monday. The administration hasn’t begun discharging any debt while several legal challenges have been working their way through the courts.
Now Americans who have applied to have as much as $20,000 in debt forgiven potentially face a longer delay or the possibility the program will be scuttled by the courts.
Biden’s long-awaited initiative has proven popular, and advocates of student debt relief praised the ease of the application process. The online application has held up to strong initial demand, unlike the Federal Student Aid website, which crashed shortly after Biden announced the debt cancellation plan in August.
People making up to $125,000 a year, or households with less than $250,000 in annual income, are eligible to have $10,000 in student debt canceled, with an additional $10,000 in relief going for those who received federal Pell Grants. The Biden administration has estimated 40 million Americans, including more than 800,000 Massachusetts residents, are eligible for the program, which the Congressional Budget Office has estimated will cost $400 billion.
People should continue to apply to the program, White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said Friday night after the court ruling. She noted the stay doesn’t prevent the Biden administration from reviewing applications and preparing to send them to loan servicers, but only from actually discharging the debt.
“We will continue to move full speed ahead in our preparations in compliance with this order,” she said in a written statement. “And, the administration will continue to fight Republican officials suing to block our efforts to provide relief to working families.”
Biden touted the program in a speech at Delaware State University on Friday.
“My commitment when I ran for president of the United States that if I was elected, I would make the government work and deliver for the people,” Biden said. “A simple application process keeps that commitment. Just as I’m keeping my commitment to relieve student debt.”
The Education Department will not cancel any student debt before Oct. 23, according to a legal filing this month by the Biden administration. Some people, such as those already in income-driven repayment plans, are eligible for automatic student loan cancellation, but won’t have their relief processed until after Nov. 14, to give them a chance to opt out.
Opponents of the debt forgiveness have filed suit to stop it, including a group of Republican state attorneys general from Nebraska, Missouri, Arkansas, Iowa, Kansas, and South Carolina. That lawsuit was dismissed by federal judges on Thursday on the grounds the states lacked legal standing. But the Eighth Circuit appellate court Friday granted a stay until it could rule on the states’ request to block the program.
Before the appeals court decision, Biden criticized the states and other opponents for legal challenges.
“Republican members of Congress and Republican governors are doing everything they can to deny this relief even ... to their own constituents,” he said in his speech at Delaware State University. “As soon as I announced my administration’s plan on student debt, they started attacking it, saying all kinds of things. Their outrage is wrong and it’s hypocritical.”
One student debt relief advocate downplayed Friday’s court ruling.
“We want to be clear that this is part of the legal process,” said Cody Hounanian, executive director of the Student Debt Crisis Center. “We are confident that the president’s student debt cancellation plan will remain and that borrowers will receive relief in due time.”
Representative Ayanna Pressley, a Boston Democrat and vocal advocate for student debt relief, said on Wednesday that she wasn’t worried about the legal challenges, which she described as a typical Republican strategy.
“I don’t put much stock in these frivolous lawsuits,” she said. “They’re a distraction tactic.”
When Pressley met with student leaders at Boston University on Tuesday, she asked for a show of hands if they had already applied. Around 80 percent of hands went up, she said.
But Pressley said there’s more to be done to spread the word about the application to ensure everyone who is eligible gets loan relief. She and Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, a Democrat who has made the issue a cornerstone of her office, will travel across the state on Tuesday to encourage residents to apply.
“It’s not true, ‘if you build it, they will come,’” Pressley said. “That’s only true if they know about it, and so we will be screaming this from the rooftops.”
Advocates see room for improvement. They want the administration to create a paper form for those without Internet access and noted that some borrowers living overseas reported they couldn’t access the online application.
Many advocates had pushed for automatic loan cancellation in the past and worry the application will serve as a barrier for would-be beneficiaries. Others are concerned the steps some borrowers will need to verify their income, such as dependent students whose eligibility is determined by their parent’s income, will reduce the number of borrowers who ultimately receive loan relief.
“Every time you add a step it just really adds to the confusion,” said Braxton Brewington, press secretary for Debt Collective, a group that pushes for widespread debt relief. “It’s not the simplicity or the complexity of the application, it’s the existence of the application.”
The Department of Education estimated last month that 81 percent of eligible borrowers, or some 32 million people, would apply for relief.
Claudio Martinez, executive director of Zero Debt Massachusetts, said his grass-roots organization’s outreach is focused on those most affected by the student loan crisis, especially Black, Latino, and low-income borrowers. He said the decision to make the form available in English and Spanish goes a long way toward reaching those communities.
Still, non-English speakers “will have to go to the English site first, and that creates another barrier for people to apply,” Martinez said. He added that he’d like to see the government report the number and demographics of applicants each week, so advocates can target outreach to communities with lower numbers.
A group of US representatives expressed a similar desire on Friday when they asked Education Secretary Miguel Cardona to ensure racial equity was at the forefront of the student debt relief program by targeting outreach to Historically Black Colleges and Universities.
While advocates see the debt relief plan as a positive step, they intend to keep pushing for more. Timmy Sullivan, who heads the Public Higher Education Network of Massachusetts, which advocates for debt-free public college, said he will continue to advocate for cancellation of all student debt.
“There’s a philosophical and moral question of: Should we send people into debt for the right to learn? And my response would be no,” he said. “The way that we correct the fact that we have forced generations to take out enormous amounts of debt in order to access their education is ... to cancel debt across the board.”
Material from the Associated Press is used in this report.