Millions of Americans could see their loan balances reduced or wiped away under President Joe Biden’s student debt forgiveness program. And it’s not just students who can apply for relief — many parents who supported them through college are also eligible.

The program, which was  formally launched on Oct. 17, allows 40 million Americans with federally held student debt to apply for up to $20,000 in forgiveness, depending on their loan type. Included are Parent PLUS loans, which are awarded to parents whose children need help paying for their education beyond any financial aid they’ve received.

The president plans to promote his initiative Friday at Delaware State University. As of Oct. 18, about 12 million people had applied for loan forgiveness, Biden has said.

Parents can borrow the full amount of annual college expenses, minus whatever grants or scholarships their children have been awarded. The interest rate on such loans is typically higher than that of other federal student loans. The rate for the 2022-2023 school year is 7.54%, compared with 4.99% for direct undergraduate loans.

Parent PLUS Loans accounted for about 10% of the $95.9 billion in student aid distributed in the 2020-2021 school year. By the second quarter of 2021, 3.6 million parents held $103.6 billion in such loans. The total amount of outstanding college debt is $1.7 trillion.

The average Parent PLUS balance is $28,800. Some parents took out loans for multiple children, and some are still paying off debt for their own college education, as well.

After paying down her own student debt, Julie Mastrine, a 31-year-old marketing director in Pennsylvania, is paying off about $41,000 in Parent PLUS loans that her father took out to support her and her twin sister. He was only making minimum payments so the interest was accumulating.

Mastrine said she believes that such forgiveness is an imperfect, short-term solution to the long-term crisis of  rising tuition rates. Still, the $10,000 in forgiveness her father is eligible to receive will “help us free up other money that would’ve been going to student loan debt to buy a house,” Mastrine said. But she said she is confused about the specifics:  “Who applies? Is it me or my father?” she asked.

A guide published by the Department of Education notes that parents must apply for Parent PLUS loan forgiveness through the student-aid website portal themselves. Parents who earned up to $125,000 — or couples who made $250,000 — are eligible for up to $10,000 in forgiveness, regardless of how many children their loans may have covered.

Multiple legal challenges moving through the courts threaten to halt the effort, but the administration so far has fended them off. On Oct. 20, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Amy Coney Barrett rejected a request by a Wisconsin-based taxpayer group to block the program. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky has called the debt forgiveness program "socialism" and a "slap in the face" to Americans who paid back their student loans. 

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