Lois Ann Dickson was the daughter of Jamaican immigrants; her father worked as a janitor, her mother, as a maid. She was valedictorian of her high school and earned Phi Beta Kappa at Radcliffe. In 1959, Dickson, who by marriage became Lois Rice, joined the College Board as an executive, where she lobbied for financial assistance for students entering higher education. At the time, it was known as the Basic Educational Opportunity Grant, and in 1972 it found a sponsor in Rhode Island Sen. Claiborne Pell.
The Pell grant provides thousands of dollars to eligible recipients toward the cost of tuition, without having to be paid back. Rice both pressed for its establishment and testified numerous times before Congress to ensure that it not only remained in place, but grew as cost burdens for students grew. In obituaries upon her death in 2017, Rice was called the mother of the Pell grant, and according to Pells grandson, it would not have come into existence without her, nor survived in the decades since without her passionate advocacy.
In addition to being the mother of the Pell grant, Lois Rice was also the mother of Susan Rice, who serves today as head of the administrations Domestic Policy Council. In public remarks in November, Rice called expanding the Pell grant the cause of my mothers life, and said that bringing down the costs of higher education was critical to strengthening the working and middle classes.
It is therefore notable that Rice, according to Politico, has emerged as a major impediment to the cause of student debt forgiveness, the subject of a fervent debate inside the White House. The Prospect has confirmed that Rice and her Domestic Policy Council have not favored any debt cancellation by executive action, which is legally permissible under the Higher Education Act. Advocates working on the student debt issue have been aware of Rices opposition for close to a year.
While the Pell grant may at one time have provided opportunity for families of modest means, the soaring cost of college tuition has made it grossly inadequate.
The purpose of the Pell grant, Rices mothers great cause, was to offer access to higher education that was not conditioned on a familys financial condition. Its architects believed that having a basic grant, instead of a costly loan that would follow the graduate decades into the future, was vital to expanding educational opportunity. It was the foundation of a student financial aid package.
Unfortunately, that foundation has grown rickety in the 50 years since the basic grant was established. While the Pell grant may at one time have provided opportunity for families of modest means, the soaring cost of college tuition has made it grossly inadequate. This has led to an explosion in student lending, with detrimental consequences for student borrowers and the broader economy.
Nearly 1 in 6 Americans carry student debt, totaling over 45 million people. Research from the New York Federal Reserve has shown student debt to have a measurable negative economic effect, as debt-holders delay major purchases of homes or cars because of having to service student borrowing. The student debt crisis has led to calls for cancellation of some or all federal loans, as a prelude to figuring out a different means of financing higher education that doesnt put such a burden on the backs of college attendees.
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President Biden campaigned on forgiving $10,000 in student debt, but he never endorsed cancellation through executive action. At other times, he has been hostile to the concept of using executive authority, which practically speaking is the only way student debt forgiveness will get done given a closely divided Congress. Biden explicitly dismissed the idea of canceling up to $50,000 in student debt at a CNN town hall last February, saying that it would expend resources to reward Ivy Leaguers rather than young children who come from disadvantaged circumstances.
For what its worth, research from the Jain Family Institutes Marshall Steinbaum shows that student debt cancellation would be progressive. Moreover, the true cost of forgiving student debt for the government is contested, with made-up numbers and rough estimates obscuring the real economics of the matter.
The president has repeatedly extended the student loan payment pause instituted at the outset of the pandemic; its now scheduled to expire this May. Rices Domestic Policy Council, according to Politico, wanted Biden to hold firm and have student loan payments resume in February, arguing that it was important to prudently manage the program. That was the position of the administration before progressive advocates made some noise. Eventually, Rice and the DPC went along with the decision to extend the payment pause.
The payment pause extension, however, just kicks the can down the road to May, when a decision must be made all over again.
Rice, whose political career prior to getting the Domestic Policy Council position was largely in the area of foreign policy, certainly recognizes at an individual level the burdens faced by people suffering under large amounts of student debt. Just a couple of weeks ago, she tweeted from her personal account about a GoFundMe appeal for a couple facing medical difficulties. In addition to their doctors bills, the fundraiser reads, the student loan and mortgage crises left the couple facing over $400,000 in debt, along with their continuing monthly living and medical expenses.
In other contexts, Rice has supported debt cancellation, in particular the Education Departments overhaul of the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program, which has been mired in dysfunction for years and barely followed through on its promises to cancel loans after ten years of payments for those who take public-service jobs in government or public schools.
For months, the administration has claimed to be studying its legal authorities for debt cancellation. The Education Department memo on its authority was 100 percent redacted, while a Justice Department memo has been produced but not released, per The Washington Post.
Another way to talk about student debt cancellation is to say that it converts a loan into a grant, providing a stronger foundation for financial aid to promote the important goal of accessible education for all. This was Lois Rices argument for Pell grants for decades.
Her daughter does not appear to agree.