President Biden is in murky water with student loan borrowers and advocates after revealing his next avenues for relief may not be available for everyone the way he originally promised. 

Just before student loan payments turned back on after a more than three-year pandemic pause, the administration announced its initial policy considerations for its next debt forgiveness plan. The announcement showed the Department of Education is looking to forgive debt for certain groups of borrowers, but for now apparently backing away from universal relief. 

While there is time for plans to change — or for additional ones to emerge — the proposal rattled advocates and supporters who now question if Biden will ever be able to help all 45 million borrowers after the Supreme Court struck down his previous proposal.

“This is the way the student loan swamp in Washington, D.C., operates. They want to put forth a face like they’re really wanting to cancel loans, but the fact of the matter is, the Department of Education has no real desire or intentions of actually canceling any loans, if they can possibly get away with not doing that,” said Alan Collinge, founder of Student Loan Justice. 

The new proposal by the administration is set to target “student loan borrowers in need,” including those who entered repayment decades ago, borrowers whose balances are greater than what they originally owed, borrowers who are eligible for relief under specific programs but didn’t apply, those under financial hardship and those who went through programs that didn’t give financial value. 

Biden gave remarks on student debt and his administration’s efforts to tackle it on Wednesday. View his address in the video above.

Natalia Abrams, president and founder of the Student Debt Crisis Center, said, “We hope that these questions will not narrow the approach the committee — and ultimately the administration — takes when issuing regulations to provide needed relief to borrowers.

“We must and should cancel student loan debt,” she added.

The administration stresses that it is still very early in the negotiated rulemaking process and it is a long way off from knowing what the final plan will look like.

“We have said we want to reach as many borrowers as possible. The questions outline key concepts we are seeking feedback on. We look forward to the negotiated rulemaking process to help develop a robust final product,” an Education Department spokesperson told The Hill on Monday. “The Administration continues to fight to make the cost of higher education affordable for all, but it is too early to estimate the size of those that will be affected by the negotiated rulemaking — it will depend significantly on the details and that is where we are considering feedback.”

The Biden administration has already forgiven $127 billion in student loans, including a latest announcement on Wednesday morning that gives $9 billion in relief to 125,000 borrowers who have been on an income-driven repayment program (IDR), Public Service Loan Forgiveness program or have been determined total or permanent disabled.

The new efforts, however, fall short of the at least $10,000 in forgiveness the president had pledged on the campaign trail.

“Additionally, we should forgive a minimum of $10,000/person of federal student loans, as proposed by Senator Warren and colleagues. Young people and other student debt holders bore the brunt of the last crisis. It shouldn’t happen again,” Biden had said in 2020.

The policy considerations will be discussed at the first Student Loan Relief Committee meeting on Oct. 10 and Oct. 11. 

“Now, we are diligently moving through the regulatory process to advance debt relief for even more borrowers. Today, after considering more than 26,000 public comments on how to tailor this relief, we are releasing this additional information about this effort. We’re committed to standing up for borrowers and making sure that student debt does not stop anyone from climbing the economic ladder and pursuing the American dream,” said Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona.

If there aren’t any changes, the Biden administration could see greater pushback from other Democrats who have called for transformative action on the issue. Leading liberals such as Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) previously called for Biden to use an executive order to give universal student loan relief of up to $50,000.

“It was pretty clear that Biden was never very sincere about wanting to counsel loans administratively by executive order in the first place. And I think that’s true of many establishment Democrats,” said Collinge.

But others are hopeful that student loan advocates will recognize the tight situation the president is in and won’t hold the change in relief plans against him. 

“It’s the extreme Republican majority who do not want to lend a hand to help the least of these marginalized communities, working class folks. Those are the people who split power, unfortunately, so [Biden’s] very limited to what you can do as president,” said Antjuan Seawright, a Democratic political strategist and founder and CEO of Blueprint Strategy LLC. 

Republicans have been adamant in their opposition to student debt relief, arguing it is unfair to those who either paid off their debts or never went to college. 

Biden’s mass debt relief that was struck down by the Supreme Court was challenged by Republican attorneys general who argued the financial repercussions that could exist from student loan forgiveness.

And while some might be upset Biden isn’t fulfilling his whole promise, it is certainly more relief than what would be given by a Republican president, making the moves possibly inconsequential in the next election cycle. 

“The Biden administration has to recalibrate and determine what is the best proposal that it can put forward. So, I would say, my hope is that there’s not distrust in the Biden administration or in efforts to provide some level of student debt relief, but a recognition as well […]  that there’s an effort to recalibrate and bring something to the table that will help, hopefully, some young people and maybe not as many as initially intended,” said DeNora Getachew, executive director of DoSomething, a youth-centered activism organization.