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Obama’s Education Secretary Had Student Debt While in Office, Too

2/23/2022 | Ella Ceron


Federal student loan debt is a $1.6 trillion burden shared by 42 million Americans. Just ask former Education Secretary John B. King: Not only was he tasked with overseeing the department, he was paying off student loan debt while doing so.

In an essay published Wednesday by Business Insider, the Maryland gubernatorial candidate also called on President Joe Biden’s administration to “unilaterally” cancel student debt for borrowers and to make college more affordable for future students.

King, 47, said in a phone interview that President Barack Obama put systems in place that the Biden administration is now using to cancel some student loan debt but that it could do far more than it has. King served as Obama’s education secretary from 2016-2017.

Neither the White House nor the U.S. Department of Education immediately responded to messages seeking comment.

“My family’s entire trajectory was changed by higher education,” King wrote in the essay. His grandmother, he noted, was the daughter of a formerly enslaved man; she “became one of the first Black women to graduate from the University of Maryland Eastern Shore, and I went on to serve as US secretary of education under our nation’s first Black president,” he wrote.

King did not detail how much student debt he had while he was the education secretary. He did say that he and his wife “were always conscious that we had to manage that as we were making decisions about home purchasing and when to get a car and those kinds of things.” Having careers helped them manage their debt payments, he said, but many others have been unable to do so despite holding down jobs.

“Folks describe a debt that hangs over them and prevents them from making decisions that they would want to about all manner of things, from career choices to when to have a child to delaying purchasing a home,” he said. “It creates real obstacles for folks and it wasn’t always this way.”

The candidate, who favors making higher education free for some Maryland students, also pointed to the ways in which student loan debt disproportionately harms Black borrowers, given that they graduate with more debt than their white counterparts on average, and that it takes them longer to pay it off.

A June 2021 report by the Roosevelt Institute, a liberal think tank, found that canceling up to $50,000 in student loan debt would increase Black wealth by as much as 40%. Doing so “would provide more benefits to those with fewer economic resources and could play a critical role in addressing the racial wealth gap and building the Black middle class,” the institute wrote.

“We have to see that debt forgiveness is really an equity advancing strategy because so much of the current debt crisis is tied to the racial wealth gap,” said King, who is on leave as president of the Education Trust, an education civil-rights organization. “And so much of the struggle with debt repayment is tied to the gender wage gap. When we tackle this issue, we have to do it in a way that is equity advancing.”

Biden has resisted calls by lawmakers to cancel $50,000 in student loan debt per borrower. He said during his presidential campaign that he would cancel up to $10,000 in federal student loans per person. White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said in December 2021 that the president was waiting for Congress to send him a bill to that effect.

The Biden administration in December also extended the moratorium on student loan repayments following the surge of the Covid-19 omicron variant. U.S. Representative Mondaire Jones, a New York Democrat, on Tuesday urged the administration to cancel student loan debt rather than extend the moratorium again.

“The sky didn’t fall and our economy didn’t implode,” Jones said of the moratorium extensions, which froze debt payments and interest rates, but did not wipe slates clean. “A third extension would be welcome. But we can’t keep slapping Band-Aids on a deepening wound.”