The new estimate will fuel the debate over President Biden’s student debt decision, which was cheered by advocates but immediately assailed by Republican lawmakers as a wasteful and inefficient waste of government spending. Biden announced in August that his administration would cancel up to $20,000 in student debt for lower- and middle-class borrowers.
Supporters of student debt cancellation have argued that similar estimates in the past have overstated the policy’s cost to the federal government, because despite formally owing the federal government money many borrowers never pay back the loans.
The CBO estimate excludes the White House’s simultaneous move to lower the monthly amount borrowers can be forced to repay as a percentage of their income from 10 percent to 5 percent. That policy is set to cost an additional $120 billion, according to estimates from the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, a D.C.-based think tank that has opposed Biden’s policy.
“The president announced possibly the most expensive executive action in history without a score, and we’re now seeing just how expensive this policy is going to be,” said Marc Goldwein, senior vice president for policy with the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, in an interview before the score’s release.
More than 40 million Americans could receive some level of student loan relief under Biden’s plan. Half of those could have their debt completely canceled, according to the White House. The administration estimates that 60 percent of borrowers are entitled to have their debt reduced by $20,000 because they received Pell Grants, federal aid for lower-income students, as undergraduates.
A recent analysis by the Census Bureau said Black and Hispanic women could benefit the most from the one-time cancellation policy. Both groups hold a disproportionate share of education debt relative to their peers.
White House officials have said the typical Black borrower will see their balance cut nearly in half, and more than one in four will have their debt erased altogether, even before applying the additional $10,000 for Pell recipients.
Roughly 8 million borrowers, whose income is already on file at the department, will have their loans automatically forgiven without having to apply, according to the Education Department. Everyone else will have to apply in early October, when the agency expects to release the form.
GOP lawmakers and state attorneys general have said they are exploring the possibility of a lawsuit to overturn the policy before it goes into effect. One conservative group, the Job Creators Network, has said it plans to sue the administration once the Education Department guidance is released.
Some economists cautioned that opponents of the policy frequently overstate its price-tag. Marshall Steinbaum, an economist at the University of Utah, said his research suggests that more than 60 percent of outstanding student loans have rising balances over time — suggesting that many of them are not being paid off.
“A very large share of already outstanding student debt was not going to be repaid anyway, so I’m curious how the CBO will account for the fact that most student debt was already uncollectable,” said Steinbaum, who supports student debt cancellation, in an interview before the CBO’s release.
Danielle Douglas–Gabriel contributed reporting to this article.