Politics

How a Bad Website Could Kneecap Biden’s Push to Forgive Student Debt

The administration is in a high-stakes rush to launch its portal for borrowers before the midterms.

A sign in front of the U.S. Capitol that says "student debt cancellation."
Everybody’s talking about it. Drew Angerer/Getty Images

During a meeting on Tuesday, the Department of Education circulated a mockup of the website it intends to debut soon, where Americans will be able to apply for the Biden administration’s student loan forgiveness program.

The form looks simple enough, requiring only basic biographical information: first and last name, Social Security number, birthdate, email address, and phone number. It asks about your income, since higher earners aren’t eligible, but doesn’t require any documentation—just check a box to swear, “under penalty of perjury,” that you didn’t make more than $125,000 in 2020 or 2021, and you’re set (the limit is $250,000 for joint tax filers). The application is in English and Spanish. That’s it.

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What’s still missing, critically, is a date for the site to go live. Meeting attendees were told that the administration still expects the site to roll out sometime in October. But whenever it finally debuts, there will be enormous stakes riding on how smoothly it works.

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Democrats are banking on student debt forgiveness as a major component of their midterm messaging to motivate younger voters, who are famously hard to turn out for non-presidential elections and have been notoriously cool toward Biden. The White House’s own estimates claim that 40 million Americans will be eligible for the debt relief program, and almost all of them will have to apply. It has suggested that the new website will reach 75 percent of them.

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That means that 30 million people will be storming the Department of Education domain, many of them all at once—an incredible surge of web traffic. If the site crashes, breaks, or is otherwise inoperable, many voters’ final experience before Election Day will be not of zero balances, but of the maddening experience of being unable to access the debt cancellation the party has promised them. Rather than bring more young Democrats to the polls, a website that bricks could keep them away.

Building a website able to sustain that amount of traffic will take a massive lift, and the federal government’s track record on such tasks is not pretty. Healthcare.gov, the page associated with the rollout of Obamacare, crashed after being overwhelmed by just 2.8 million visitors on the first day in October 2013. That was more than three and a half years after the passage of the Affordable Care Act, and still the web presence was catastrophically underpowered. The debacle dogged the program’s reputation for years.

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Now, the Biden administration’s site will realistically need to shoulder ten times that much traffic to support a program that they announced not even two months ago.

For student debt relief groups, some of which have criticized Biden’s relief plan for being too narrow , the implementation issue is now a peak concern. “The relief is already sort of skimpy, the application just makes things more regressive. Not to mention the questions about the accessibility of the form, is the website crashing or not, does it load, are there bugs? It’s not like the Education Department is used to people flooding its website,” said Braxton Brewington, press secretary of the Debt Collective, a group that has pushed for universal, automatic debt relief.

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Even a functioning website will require substantial support systems to be in place, from back-end technicians to call centers. “We’ve already seen student loan services literally tell people to stop calling about this. That’s just one servicer, and they have professional call centers,” added Brewington.

While Team Biden needs to make sure its website works properly, it also faces pressures to get it up quickly. It’s not just the looming deadline of Election Day. The administration also has to worry about the pile-on of lawsuits from conservative groups trying to derail the program.

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In a hearing on Wednesday afternoon in the case Nebraska v. Biden, a group of Republican attorneys general will be seeking a preliminary injunction to halt the relief effort. Another suit in Wisconsin, alleging—I kid you not—reverse racism, has moved up to the 7th Circuit. On Monday night, yet another suit was filed in Texas, drawing a judge who once struck down the Affordable Care Act.

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These legal challenges have already had an impact. One reason the administration needed to create an online application was an Indiana suit in which the plaintiffs claimed they would be harmed because the state would tax their forgiven debt as income, which forced the administration to add an opt-out option to undercut the suit.

According to an attendee of Tuesday’s meeting, the White House showed confidence in its timeline, and projected no concerns about legal detours. But the more days that tick away, the more time there is for some judge to halt the program before any debt can be forgiven.

With all those legal obstacles, “the White House has to split their focus in a way that hopefully doesn’t detract from the very high-stakes technical effort in front of them,” said the meeting’s participant.

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Another firm deadline fast approaches as well: The administration, as part of its cancellation announcement, set loan repayment to begin by January 2023. If the site’s unveiling gets delayed any further, that could push the forgiveness program up against payment restarting, which could even result in student borrowers getting served bills for repayment on debt that should be or will be forgiven.

Beyond the technical and legal issues, Biden’s team has bureaucratic challenges to worry about as well. The administration will have to verify the application information with their own records. And somewhere between 1 and 5 million people are expected to be required to complete a much longer income verification process, which will slow relief for some and likely result in others not getting it at all.

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Some of this time pressure could maybe have been avoided if Biden had been ready to forgive loans the day he announced his program, or anticipated the need for an application process and had a website ready from the get-go. But by all accounts, the president vacillated on whether to even cancel debt at all. His late decision making hasn’t left much time to get the logistics right.

Realistically, the earliest the site could go live is two weeks before Election Day, and it’s possible it will be later than that (Oct. 17 is one frequently rumored date). The final sprint in competitive House and Senate races will be underway, and Democrats will be looking for a strong closing statement to beat back Republican nattering on crime and inflation, and could desperately use a smooth rollout for a program they’re banking on to amp up younger voters.  “We swear we’ll get this website working eventually” wouldn’t be much of a slogan.

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