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Supreme Court’s student debt ruling could affect millions of swing-state voters

Over the past few decades, student debt has exploded as a problem for many, in large part because college costs keep rising.
People rally in support of the Biden administration's student debt relief plan outside the Supreme Court on Feb. 27, 2023.
People rally in support of the Biden administration's student debt relief plan outside the Supreme Court on Feb. 27.Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images

WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court heard arguments last week about the Biden administration’s plan to provide student debt relief and called into question the survival of a proposal that has far-reaching impacts.

The executive action, which the administration announced in August before the 2022 fall election (in part to fire up younger voters), could offer debt relief for tens of millions of people in the U.S. and cost more than $400 billion.

But judging by last week’s court session, there is a very real possibility that the justices will strike the proposal down this year when they offer their opinion.

And if that happens, there are going to be a lot of unhappy voters in 2024, some of them in important battleground states.

Over the past few decades, student debt has exploded as a problem for many who go to college, in large part because college costs keep rising.

This year, the average tuition and fees for one year at a private four-year college were $39,400, according to the College Board. In 1992, the average private school cost was $21,860 when adjusted for inflation. That’s an increase of just over 80%.

At an average public four-year college, the one-year cost for tuition and fees was $10,940 this year, according to the College Board. That compares to $4,870 in 1992 (again, adjusted for inflation). That’s an increase of roughly 125%.

And remember, those figures don’t include room and board, which usually add more than $10,000. In other words, the days of “working your way through college” increasingly look like ancient history for most students.

In total, the costs work out to more than $1.6 trillion in student loan debt in the U.S. economy.

Last summer, the Biden administration offered a targeted approach to address at least some of that debt among those who met certain income requirements: individuals making under $125,000 or couples making less than $250,000.

The proposal would have removed up to $20,000 in debt among students who received Pell Grants — those who displayed “exceptional financial need” when they went to college. It also offered up to $10,000 in debt relief to students who didn’t receive Pell Grants.

The issue before the court is whether such a plan could be implemented only by an act of Congress and whether the administration exceeded its authority. And the questions posed by the justices certainly suggested they were skeptical of the plan. 

But whatever the court decides, the reaction among those affected by student debt was swift and massive. In the four weeks the program was open (before it was frozen because of the Supreme Court case) more than 26 million people from every state applied to be part of it or were told they qualified, according to the administration.

In California and Texas, more than 2 million applied or were notified. More than 1 million applied or were notified in Florida, New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Illinois and Georgia. Overall, 43 states had 100,000 or more people apply for the program or be notified that they qualified for it.

Those are big numbers for just four weeks, a sign of real interest and impact among people feeling weighed down by student debt.

And considering the recent trend of close elections, all that interest may carry a lot of weight.

The trend in American politics is one of close elections and a sharply divided electorate. A few thousand votes this way or that way can shift the balance of power. And if you look at the closest states in the 2020 presidential race, you’ll see a lot of overlap with the student debt program applications.

The 2020 election between President Joe Biden and Donald Trump was decided by less than 4 points in eight states. Seven of them had more than 400,000 student debt applications.

Florida (Trump +3.5 points), Pennsylvania (Biden +1.2 points) and Georgia (Biden +.22 points) all had more than 1 million apply for the student debt relief program or had people notified they qualified for it.

Michigan (Biden +2.8 points) and North Carolina (Trump +1.3 points) each had more than 800,000 people. And Arizona (Biden +.3 points) and Wisconsin (Biden +.6 points) had more than 400,000 people.

That’s not to say student debt is merely a political matter. There are tens of millions of people for whom the issue is very real.

But, in reality, the student debt relief plan was in part a political move, a proposal aimed at firing up younger voters and getting them out to vote. And it might have helped Democrats. Turnout among younger voters was up in key states last year, and Republicans generally had a lackluster midterms.

How will the 26 million people who stood to benefit from the program feel about it in 2024 — angry, frustrated, apathetic? In another close election, the answer could carry a lot of weight.