President Biden on Friday canceled nearly $5 billion in student loan debt for 74,000 people, the latest effort by the administration to deliver piecemeal relief after the Supreme Court struck down Mr. Biden’s more ambitious loan cancellation plan last year.
Most of the people who will benefit from the latest round are teachers, nurses, firefighters and others in public service, who qualify for relief under existing programs that have been plagued by bureaucratic and other problems for years.
“My administration is able to deliver relief to these borrowers — and millions more — because of fixes we made to broken student loan programs that were preventing borrowers from getting relief they were entitled to under the law,” Mr. Biden said in a statement.
His promise to forgive student loans is a sticking point for crucial voting blocs, particularly young people, and for Black borrowers who disproportionately shoulder the most student loan debt. More than 43 million people across the country owe about $1.6 trillion in federal loans for college, according to government data.
The Biden administration has canceled more than $136 billion in student loan debt for more than 3.7 million people as the White House finds workarounds after the Supreme Court decision in June.
That more ambitious plan would have canceled up to $400 billion in student debt for about 43 million borrowers. But the court ruled that Mr. Biden had overstepped his authority with the plan.
The president said on Friday that his administration was “continuing to pursue an alternative path to deliver student debt relief to as many borrowers as possible as quickly as possible.”
In October, the Biden administration forgave $9 billion in loans for about 125,000 borrowers working in public service jobs and those with permanent disabilities. In December, it wiped out nearly $5 billion in debt for 80,300 borrowers.
The administration also started a program, known as SAVE, that would reduce monthly payments and shorten the life of loans for millions of borrowers. The Education Department announced this month that it would fast-track relief for some borrowers in the program who have less than $12,000 in loans.
Mr. Biden’s efforts to wipe out debts through policy changes have consistently polled favorably among Americans. But Republicans who oppose loan forgiveness characterize the policies as an unfair burden on taxpayers.
“It’s clear that the Biden administration needs a good old-fashioned dose of fiscal common sense — all it knows how to do is spend like a drunken sailor,” said Representative Virginia Foxx, a North Carolina Republican who is the chairwoman of the Committee on Education and the Workforce.
Debt-relief advocates say the Biden administration should be commended for canceling historic levels of student loan debt, but called for even more aggressive policies.
Braxton Brewington, press secretary for the Debt Collective, an advocacy group working to cancel student loan debt, said the administration’s measures were “a reminder that despite the Supreme Court ruling, there are powers at the Biden administration’s disposal and they use them — but sparingly.”
“At this point, we’re getting closer to saying that they’ve made a dent in the portfolio, but at this scale, and at this rate, we’re still going to have a student debt crisis,” Mr. Brewington said.
In a letter sent to Education Secretary Miguel Cardona this week, the NAACP along with more than 60 other organizations, urged the administration to reconvene a rule-making session to define and extend relief to borrowers experiencing “hardship,” which would capture a large swath of people Mr. Biden’s struck-down plan would have reached — recent graduates, low-income borrowers and people of color.
Wisdom Cole, the national director of the NAACP Youth and College Division, said that student loans were “absolutely still a voting issue,” and that the NAACP is working to recruit 300,000 volunteers to turn out Black voters in November. He said the hardship rule would be important for the administration to demonstrate their commitment to more expansive relief.
“Taking out the loans in the first place, is hardship — point blank period — and we have to get young people excited for this election,” Mr. Cole said. “And so when we see bold and progressive policies like that, we are able to ensure the turnout that we need to win.”
Mr. Biden’s campaign has signaled that it plans to emphasize that its loan forgiveness has had a real impact. This week, Mr. Biden made an unannounced campaign stop at the home of an educator in North Carolina who had his loans forgiven.
“Joe Biden knows that real leadership means giving hardworking Americans the relief and breathing room they need to succeed, which is why he’s taken historic action to lower costs across the board, including canceling more student loans than any president in American history,” said Kevin Munoz, the senior spokesman for Mr. Biden’s re-election campaign.