As the new presidential administration works to tackle the COVID-19 pandemic and the economic crisis that has resulted from coronavirus-related shutdowns, one avenue of relief that Joe Biden has been exploring is student debt cancellation. 

During his first town hall event as President of the United States on Tuesday, Biden threw cold water on advocates for erasing massive student loan debt, responding that he will "not make that happen" when asked about using his executive power to wipe out $50,000 in student debt per person, as progressives have been advocating.

Despite the president's hesitancy, a number of Democrats in Congress are still committed to major student debt forgiveness as a plan for economic relief and racial justice. In December, Rep. Ayanna Pressley declared that “student loan cancellation is a matter of racial and economic justice across our country,” noting that Black students have to take on more debt and are five times more likely to default compared to their white counterparts.

Black college graduates have nearly twice the debt of their peers, owing on average nearly $53,000 each. On Wednesday, Sen. Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who joined Pressley earlier in pushing Biden to support the $50,000 plan, reiterated their support for the larger figure.

As the debate over student loan forgiveness continues, here are five things you should know about Biden's plan and where it stands now.

1. Biden plans to tackle student debt and make education more affordable

Before taking office, Biden pledged that he would “immediately” request that Congress cancel up to $10,000 in federal student loans per individual. If passed by Congress, anyone owing $10,000 or less in federal student loans, including any interests and fees, would have all of their debt wiped out, while those who owe more than that amount would see their total debt reduced by $10,000. Biden has proposed to pay for the plan through a tax hike on wealthy Americans, specifically those making over $400,000 annually.

In the long run, the Biden team has indicated that it wants to make higher education more affordable and accessible through a series of reforms. Biden has suggested making undergraduate education free at public colleges and universities for Americans with family income under $125,000 per year. The offer of free education would also apply to both public and private historically Black colleges and universities or HBCUs. Furthermore, Biden has proposed more generous loan repayment terms and additional ways to earn loan forgiveness, such as public service after graduation.

2. Biden has extended loan forbearance, but not yet offered forgiveness

Since March of last year, the federal government has placed all federally-held student loans in forbearance. Basically, no one who borrowed money from the federal government to finance their education has had to make payments on their loans since March 2020.

Those loans are also not accruing additional interest during this time period, and those who have already defaulted on their loans do not have to worry about debt collectors coming after them during the forbearance. Immediately upon taking office, Biden extended this forbearance until September 30, 2021, meaning that no one is required to make federal student loan payments until then. The forbearance, as well as other debt forgiveness measures, do not apply to private student loans but do cover the majority of the $1.7 trillion in student debt that Americans owe.

3. Biden's plan will probably go through Congress, but it might not have to

The loan forgiveness plan was not included in Biden’s initial slate of emergency COVID-19 relief measures, but his supporters are pressuring him to act on student debt within his first 100 days in office. He will likely send a bill covering debt relief during this time period. Meanwhile, as detailed in an opinion piece written by Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Chuck Schumer for Blavity, some progressives have argued that Biden has the authority to wipe out student loan debt through an executive order, which would not need approval by Congress. 

As Blavity previously reported, Biden has signed many executive orders in the days since taking office, many of them to undo policies put in place by the Trump administration, but has not issued one concerning student debt relief. However, legal experts differ on whether or not the president has the authority to cancel student debts without congressional approval and speculate that such a move would likely be challenged in the Supreme Court.

Many people also point out that Biden may be politically hesitant to take such a move as he attempts to build cooperation with Congress at the start of his presidency. Biden himself gave his clearest remarks on the issue, stating on Tuesday his belief that "I don't think I have the authority to do it by signing the pen." 

4. Federal student loan forgiveness could still leave borrowers in debt

As noted above, the proposal by Biden, as well as the plan from Warren and Schumer, only covers federal debt, which makes up most but not all of the $1.7 trillion that Americans owe in student debts. Loans from private banks and other institutions would still generally be due. Additionally, under current tax law, debt forgiveness is treated as income, meaning that borrowers who have their loans forgiven may instead have to pay taxes on the amount that is wiped away. Both Biden and Schumer have proposed amending the tax code to make forgiveness tax-free, but this change would have to be explicitly implemented in order to avoid leaving Americans with unexpected bills. 

5. Biden's proposal has critics on both the left and the right

On Wednesday, Sens. Schumer and Warren doubled down on their $50,000 per person plan, arguing that former Presidents Barack Obama and Donald Trump had used their executive authority to cancel student debts. The senators' more ambitious debt relief plan would obviously benefit more Americans, as the average student graduates with almost $30,000 in debt according to recent figures, most of which is held by the federal government.

Meanwhile, many conservative lawmakers unsurprisingly oppose any forgiveness, meaning that student loans may be one of the first big fights of the Biden administration. With pressure from both sides, Biden may have to negotiate to get debt relief passed, and may face significant opposition in doing so. But student loan forgiveness has grown in popularity over the past year, especially among those who owe debts.

While the details may change, the Biden administration likely has no choice but to pursue student debt relief, even if it has to fight through Congress or the courts to enact a plan. Too many of his supporters, including the Black Americans who were crucial for electing him, demand it. In the words of Pressley, the disproportionate debt burden is a legacy of "systemic racism," and canceling student debt “must be an essential part of a truly equitable economic recovery.”