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Cancelling Student Debt Keeps Our Promise to Veterans

Soldiers salute the U.S. flag during a recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance at a welcome home ceremony for soldiers returning from a deployment in Afghanistan, at Fort. Carson, Colo., Wednesday Dec. 5, 2012. Nearly 300 soldiers of the 4th Brigade Combat Team, 4th Infantry Division, returned home after a tour of duty that began in February. (AP Photo/Brennan Linsley)

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Soldiers salute the U.S. flag during a recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance at a welcome home ceremony for soldiers returning from a deployment in Afghanistan, at Fort. Carson, Colo., Wednesday Dec. 5, 2012. Nearly 300 soldiers of the 4th Brigade Combat Team, 4th Infantry Division, returned home after a tour of duty that began in February. (AP Photo/Brennan Linsley)

For decades, America has made a promise to the brave members of our military: Serve your country and the federal government will help you with an education and a bridge to a better life. That promise—embedded in the G.I. bill after World War II—undergirded the largest expansion of the middle class in American history. But today the student debt crisis is eroding the promise of a better life for service members and veterans who seek to re-enter the workforce after military service. Higher education is supposed to provide our veterans with a ladder up. But for too many, for-profit colleges, a patchwork system of benefits and overly burdensome student loan debt acts like an anchor, weighing them down and preventing them from achieving their full potential. 

That’s one of the many reasons why we, alongside Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), have called on President Biden to cancel up to $50,000 in federal student loan debt. It would be a life-changing move for tens of thousands of American veterans.

Veterans face unique challenges when it comes to student debt. For years, predatory for-profit schools have scammed thousands of veterans. In fact, an arcane loophole in our laws actually incentivized for-profit schools to exploit veterans’ benefits because it allowed them to target other vulnerable students and maximize their debt. Lured by false promises and schemes, many veterans have racked up enormous debt, far beyond what their tuition assistance covered, and too often find themselves with worthless degrees, or without degrees at all. 

Thankfully, in the American Rescue Plan, we closed the loophole that encourages for-profit colleges to target veterans’ GI Benefits. The federal government has also made a good faith effort to address this issue through the Borrower Defense Program, which provides targeted debt relief for students who were victims of fraudulent for-profit schools. But too many defrauded veterans are falling through the cracks, unaware of the help they are eligible for, or unable to access it because of red tape. Other programs to help veterans with student debt face similar woes.

A recent GAO report found that the federal government denied about 94 percent of Department of Defense applicants to the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program, a program to administer debt relief to teachers, veterans and other public servants.

Veterans attempting to apply for the debt relief they are entitled to face a bureaucratic maze and a thicket of potentially disqualifying rules and regulations. To make matters worse, countless veterans never qualified for full G.I. Bill benefits in the first place. National Guard veterans often do not receive benefits from the G.I. Bill, and often those who are injured in the line of duty or administratively separated qualify for only partial benefits. Furthermore, LGBTQIA+ veterans unjustly discharged under policies like ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ and veterans separated due to undiagnosed PTSD often were stripped of their benefits depending on their type of discharge.

The solution to these various issues is not another piecemeal approach or targeted program for veterans, which allow too many to slip through the cracks. The solution to the student debt crisis for veterans is the same as it is for all Americans—cancellation of $50,000 in student debt for all borrowers through executive action. Under powers Congress has already granted the President under the 1965 Higher Education Act, President Biden could cancel $50,000 of student debt per a borrower through executive action. Mass cancellation would have a transformational impact on the lives of millions. Freed from crushing debt burdens, Americans could pursue a wider variety of careers, more ably purchase homes, cars, and start families.

Cancellation would also bring benefits across the economy by providing a substantial consumer-driven stimulus. And it would help create a more just society by closing the Black-white racial wealth gap by 25 percent, and the Latinx-white wealth gap by 27 percent. The truth is that Americans from all walks of life: nurses, teachers, musicians, and—yes—veterans, are victims of a tuition-loan-debt system that has spiraled way out of control. Their plight is linked, and the only solution is student-debt cancellation across the board.

Several weeks ago, White House Chief of Staff Ron Klain indicated that the president had directed the Department of Education and the Department of Justice to review the president’s legal authority to cancel student debt. The legal experts, in our view, are clear—President Biden has this authority. In fact, the White House has already used existing executive authority to place a moratorium on payments and interest to federal loans during the pandemic. 

With the flick of a pen, President Biden could forgive tens of thousands of dollars in debt holding back a generation of Americans who have worn the uniform. The Iraq Army vet hoping to get ahead who got sucked into a for-profit school. The Navy veteran fearful to take a job doing what she loves because of her monthly interest payments. The disabled veteran drowning in debt he feels he’ll never be able to repay.

Many of these veterans didn’t go to fancy schools—they went to war zones. And when they come home, American veterans deserve every opportunity to get a quality, affordable education and a stable, good-paying job—not a mountain of debt. So we stand together along with millions of struggling Americans across the country to ask President Biden to cancel student debt through executive action today.

Chuck Schumer is Senate majority leader.

Jose Vasquez is executive director of Common Defense.