Debt Cancellation Backer at Harvard Named to Education Post (1)

  • Progressives pressing president to cancel student loan debt
  • Toby Merrill co-wrote memo outlining executive authority

(Adds comments from the National Consumer Law Center and Third Way beginning in 11th paragraph.)

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A vocal proponent of canceling student loan debt is joining the Biden administration in a top role at the Education Department’s Office of the General Counsel.

Toby Merrill, who founded and directed the Project on Predatory Student Lending at Harvard Law School, will serve as deputy general counsel. The Education Department announced her hiring, along with several other political appointees, on Tuesday.

Merrill joins the agency as President Joe Biden’s administration prepares for an ambitious rulemaking that’s expected to reshape loan-relief options for struggling student borrowers and others who have been defrauded or misled by their colleges.

Drew Angerer/Getty Images
Sen. Elizabeth Warren, pictured at the Capitol on June 22, 2021, is pressing the Biden administration to forgive as much as $50,000 of a borrower’s college loans.

The administration, under pressure from progressives, is also weighing its ability to provide broader student debt relief. Lawmakers including Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) have called for the White House to cancel as much as $50,000 for borrowers across the board.

Biden called for Congress to provide $10,000 in relief for student borrowers in response to the Covid-19 pandemic, but questioned whether he has the legal authority to grant loan relief using executive action.

Student Debt Cancellation Tests Progressives’ Sway Under Biden

Merrill, in her role at Harvard, argued that the president has that authority under federal law, a contention questioned by other higher education legal experts. She co-wrote a memo to Warren last year outlining legal justification in the Higher Education Act (Public Law 110-315) for a president to cancel student loan debt without approval from Congress.

The Biden administration said in February that it would have the Department of Justice review the president’s authority to cancel student debts.

Warren has stalled the Senate’s confirmation of James Kvaal, Biden’s pick to oversee higher education policy at the Education Department. Kvaal has backed limited loan relief and stopped short of endorsing the kind of broad debt cancellation that Warren is seeking.

Merrill also criticized President Donald Trump’s education secretary, Betsy DeVos, over her handling of relief designed specifically for students defrauded by their colleges. Those students can submit “borrower defense” claims to have the Education Department wipe out their federal loans.

DeVos overhauled borrower defense regulations in 2019, arguing existing rules were unfair to colleges. Merrill called the program “a total sham” rigged to deny borrower claims. The Biden administration plans to release new regulations on borrower defense standards in 2022.

‘Lived Experiences’

Persis Yu, director of the Student Loan Borrower Assistance Project at the National Consumer Law Center, said Merrill has a history of standing up for low-income borrowers. As the Biden administration overhauls student loan rules, “it is critically important that the policymakers at the Department of Education understand the real lived experiences of our low-income clients as Toby Merrill does,” she said.

Merrill’s appointment was also praised by the centrist think tank Third Way, which has criticized calls for broad debt cancellation. Merrill has helped win more than $2 billion in debt relief for students defrauded by predatory colleges, said Nicole Siegel, a spokeswoman for Third Way.

“There are few advocates better equipped to support the Department in helping reshape borrower defense regulations and working to ensure debt relief is targeted to the students that need it the most,” she said in an email.

To contact the reporter on this story: Andrew Kreighbaum in Washington at

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Robin Meszoly at; Sarah Babbage at

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