Why Biden’s pledges of free college, waiving student debt remain unfulfilled

One year into President Joe Biden's tenure, we take stock of the status of some of his key campaign promises surrounding education, including the promise to reopen K-12 schools during the pandemic and provide two years of free community college. Geoff Bennett reports.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    As the president marks one year in the Oval Office, we are continuing to check in on some of his key campaign promises tonight, one, education.

    From reopening schools in the pandemic to a plan to offer two years of free community college, Geoff Bennett has this report card.

  • Geoff Bennett:

    As a presidential candidate, Joe Biden proposed historic investments across the span of an American education, from pre-K to college.

    Joe Biden, President of the United States: We need emergency support funding for our schools, and we need it now.

  • Geoff Bennett:

    And, as president, Biden's top priority, providing immediate relief to public schools shuttered and stretched to the breaking point by the pandemic, a COVID relief plan outlined early on.

  • Joe Biden:

    Look, we can only do that if Congress provides the necessary funding, so we get the schools, districts, communities, and states the resources they need for those so many things that aren't there already in a tight budget.

    They need funding for testing to help reopen schools, more funding for transportation, so students can maintain social distances on buses. They need it for school buildings, for additional cleaning service, protective equipment, ventilation systems.

  • Geoff Bennett:

    President Biden delivered, pouring roughly $122 billion into K-12 education as part of the $1.9 trillion COVID relief package he signed into law last spring, sending students back into classrooms and making up for learning loss.

    Add to that the president in November signing a $1.2 trillion infrastructure package, providing money for schools to remove lead pipelines and expand broadband access. One of the president's most ambitious education proposals called for universal pre-K.

  • Joe Biden:

    There's universal pre-K for every 3- and 4-year-old child in America. It's going to increase academic achievement in all children and give them an even start, no matter what home they come from, no matter how little they have been taught to read or they have been read to.

  • Geoff Bennett:

    The $110 billion pitch for free high-quality preschool aimed at offering early learning that research shows helps kids throughout their lives.

    But the plan, included in his Build Back Better Act, is currently stuck in the Senate. The president initially included in that social spending plan tuition-free community college, which he said would boost the middle class and help the U.S. compete with other countries.

    But, in October, the White House revealed it dropped the proposal in a massive round of cost-cutting aimed at satisfying conservative Democratic lawmakers.

  • Pam Williams, Community College Student:

    So, that was really discouraging to hear.

  • Geoff Bennett:

    Twenty-two-year-old Pam Williams attends community college in Milwaukee.

  • Pam Williams:

    If that would have got passed, I feel like it would encourage more people to go for a higher education, but now people seeing that community college isn't even something that I might be able to pay for, just because of how expensive that is.

  • Geoff Bennett:

    For now, the president says that proposal will have to wait.

  • Joe Biden:

    I promise you, I guarantee you, we're going to get free community college in the next several years.

  • Geoff Bennett:

    And for Americans struggling with crushing college loan debt, one Biden pledge sounded particularly promising.

  • Joe Biden:

    I'm prepared to write off a $10,000 debt, but not $50,000.

  • Anderson Cooper, CNN:

    Mr. President, let me ask you…

  • Joe Biden:

    … because I don't think I have the authority to do it by the sign of a pen.

  • Geoff Bennett:

    During his campaign, he vowed to cancel $10,000 in student debt for every borrower.

    But, for the past year, President Biden has chosen not to use his executive power to wipe out the student debt that weighs on some 45 million Americans. That's despite increased pressure from progressives like Senator Elizabeth Warren and establishment types too, like Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer.

    Instead, the White House has been kicking the issue back and forth with Congress.

  • Jen Psaki, White House Press Secretary:

    If Congress sends him a bill, he's happy to sign it. They haven't sent him a bill on that yet.

  • Geoff Bennett:

    Twenty-three-year-old Aidan Sova recently graduated with $13,000 in student loans.

  • Aidan Sova, Graduate Student:

    Although I still am a general supporter of President Biden, I have to say that my frustration grows.

    I thought that, within the last year of his presidency, he would at least ease the burden for me and all of the other Americans who are affected, particularly considering the context of the pandemic.

  • Geoff Bennett:

    Federal student loan payments are currently on pause because of the pandemic and are set to restart in May.

    All told, President Biden proposed the largest federal investment in education in generations, much of it targeted to those who need it most. but proposing policies has been far different from passing them into law.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Geoff Bennett.

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