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The Supreme Court will hear challenges to the student debt relief program


President Biden's student loan relief program is headed to the Supreme Court. The court will hear arguments during its February session. And until then, the court ordered that the administration cannot begin cancelling debts. It's just the latest legal setback to the plan to forgive up to $20,000 per person in student loans.

Elissa Nadworny from NPR's education desk joins us. Hey, Elissa.


SHAPIRO: What did the Supreme Court do today?

NADWORNY: So the Supreme Court will hear a case brought by six Republican-led states claiming the states' loan authorities will be harmed by the relief program. The court order is something of a blow to the Biden administration. The Biden administration had petitioned the court to allow them to move forward while various legal challenges were considered in the lower courts. But instead, the court is going to take up the case, and the administration will have to wait to begin canceling debts.

Biden's plan, which relieves up to $20,000 in federal student loans to low- and middle-income borrowers has faced a number of legal challenges. On Wednesday, another appeals court on the 5th Circuit rejected President Biden's bid to reinstate the plan. That was in response to a previous November ruling where a federal judge in Texas said the program was unlawful and vacated it.

SHAPIRO: So lots of legal challenges, and that means lots of confusion about whether this plan can move forward, right?

NADWORNY: That's right. And that's actually one of the reasons the Supreme Court may have decided to step in and hear arguments this term. Here's Carl Tobias. He's a law professor at the University of Richmond.

CARL TOBIAS: Discretion might be the better part of valor. Let's just take this on and do what we can because of - I guess there's substantial confusion in opening and reopening and delay. You know, all of that, I suppose, maybe made the justices feel they really should expedite this one.

NADWORNY: I talked with another law professor, Luke Herrine of the University of Alabama, and he said he wasn't surprised that the Supreme Court took it up.

LUKE HERRINE: I think the legal issue is important and difficult enough that it was likely that the Supreme Court would take it up.

NADWORNY: He says the court is going to weigh in on two things - the legality of the debt relief program and this idea of overreach. So does the ed department have the power to do this?

SHAPIRO: What does all of this mean for borrowers?

NADWORNY: So more than 40 million Americans were expected to qualify for Biden's plan, and many of them have submitted applications. Before the legal troubles, the education department approved about 16 million of those applicants. They say their plan is to cancel that debt if and when the program prevails in court. Federal borrowers, though, they haven't had to make monthly loan payments more or less since the COVID pandemic began in early 2020. And it's the administration's plan to keep it that way until legal challenges to student loan relief play out. As it stands right now, payments will resume 60 days after a legal decision or 60 days after June 30. It kind of depends whatever happens first.

SHAPIRO: Thank you. That is NPR's Elissa Nadworny.

NADWORNY: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Elissa Nadworny
Elissa Nadworny is an NPR Correspondent, covering higher education.