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Biden's student loan forgiveness talks are nearing an end. Here are a few takeaways.

Education Department officials spent all day Thursday – and plan to carry on Friday – wrangling with borrowers and experts over the details of the Biden administration's latest student loan forgiveness proposal.

President Joe Biden's recent plan, a win for progressives, would ease the burdens of many Americans who feel financially crushed by the weight of their student loans.

Whether the plan can make it through government red tape – and the courts – is a different story.

The talks underway are exploring more ways to ease America's student loan crisis, apart from a separate announcement on Wednesday, in which Biden said 150,000 long-time borrowers would be forgiven for $1.2 billion in student loans.

But a broader plan has been in the works for some time: Biden also wants to offer relief to borrowers experiencing what his Education Department calls "hardship." Exactly who would qualify, officials suggest, would depend on a range of factors, including a person's household income, age or other debt they have.

The meetings come after the U.S. Supreme Court last summer dealt Biden a major political blow, striking down the initial plan for mass student loan forgiveness the White House had sought during the pandemic, which relied on Biden's executive authority to take action during a national emergency.

In the wake of that ruling, the administration turned to its Plan B. The Education Department instead pursued debt relief through changes to a different law – the Higher Education Act.

The new strategy involves a lot more red tape. It calls for a bureaucratic process known as negotiated rulemaking, or "neg reg," involving a group of stakeholders who deliberate regulations with Education Department officials. The affair can be a slog.

But this week's meetings could be the most consequential – they're likely the last before the regulations have to be set in stone by November. Any new rules would likely go into effect by July 2025.

The first few rounds of talks happened last summer and fall. The negotiators made some news, resulting in proposed policies to forgive the loans of people whose outstanding balances exceed the amount they originally borrowed. Forgiveness for older borrowers who began repayment at least two decades ago was also on the table.

But after those meetings wrapped up, advocates for people with debt and congressional Democrats, including many of the negotiators, felt dissatisfied. As pressure mounted, USA TODAY first reported that the Biden administration decided to extend the talks.

Progressives were pleased. A few committee members have since praised the Biden administration for coming up with a policy that acknowledges what they say is a fundamental truth of America's student loan debt crisis: factors like age or disability often affect people's ability to pay back their loans.

“We’re thrilled to get this language at all,” said Jessica Ranucci, a negotiator and attorney at the New York Legal Assistance Group.

In the past week, others have criticized the Biden administration's latest four-page proposal as too vague – a concern likely prompted by the White House's wariness about possible court challenges from conservative groups.

Officials are probably right to be worried. The policies are still far from official, and yet conservative legal groups are already poking holes in them. To keep those groups at bay, less specificity might be the department's best strategy, according to Ed Boltz, a bankruptcy attorney and an alternate negotiator on the panel.

"To the degree that it’s vague, I think that's probably not a bad thing," he told USA TODAY before this week's talks.

In a statement to USA TODAY, the New Civil Liberties Alliance, which represents organizations that have challenged Biden’s student loan proposals in the past, questioned the viability of the Education Department's latest proposal. Sheng Li, an attorney for the alliance, said the Supreme Court's decision from this summer would prevent Biden from canceling the student loans of any borrower determined to be experiencing hardship.

The question of whether the regulations will pass legal muster has loomed over the discussions from the start. But fear of litigation shouldn’t hold the administration back from delivering help to borrowers who need it, said Jalil Bishop, a negotiator representing graduate student borrowers.

“We also can’t negotiate against ourselves,” he said.

Here are four takeaways from Thursday's meeting, plus some context.

Neg reg talks: Biden's new student loan forgiveness plan is underway. 5 key takeaways from the first day

The big picture: What is Biden proposing? 

The committee’s last round of meetings ended in a cloud of frustration.

Many members on the panel were unhappy that federal officials seemed to be punting on a proposal for broader student debt relief – even after researchers urged the committee to provide automatic relief to households making less than $71,000, news that USA TODAY broke in early December.

The administration’s new plan includes 17 factors for the U.S. education secretary to consider when canceling loans. Among them, the top education official should evaluate: how much debt a person has, whether they received federal financial aid in college and the type of college they attended.

In recent weeks, federal officials have touted their decision to extend the talks as evidence of the administration’s commitment to easing Americans’ student loan debt.

“The Biden-Harris Administration will never stop working to deliver student debt relief for borrowers,” said James Kvaal, the education undersecretary, in a statement last month.

A sweeping plan: Official promises 'broad-strokes' paths to relief

In the first hour of talks Thursday, negotiators emphasized their preference for taking as broad an approach as possible to defining who would be eligible for relief. The previous sessions had irked participants who felt the resulting policies weren't far-reaching enough.

John Whitelaw, who represents people with disabilities, stressed that measurements of household income should consider an expansive definition of a household. Many individuals, for example, care for people who aren’t related to them, and Whitelaw said those burdens should be counted when measuring household costs.

Several negotiators repeated their calls for certain borrowers of Parent PLUS loans to be considered when evaluating who’s experiencing hardship.

Tamy Abernathy, a policy coordinator with the department who is facilitating the negotiations, said last year that the purpose of the sessions wasn't to provide catch-all relief for borrowers.

But on Thursday, she appeared to pivot, stressing that the department agrees an expansive approach is critical. “We’re not looking to narrowly define every piece of what a hardship could be,” she said. The administration wants to establish “broad-strokes pathways to relief.”

Negotiators spar: Should borrowers in default get relief?

Things got tense Thursday morning when discussions turned to a portion of the regulations that would relieve the loans of borrowers most likely to be in default in the next two years. The provision says borrowers who have an 80% likelihood of defaulting can be counted as experiencing hardship and are thus eligible for having some or all their federal student loans forgiven.

Scott Buchanan, who represents student loan servicers, said he was not happy with the proposal. He called it “incredibly vague, ambitious and untethered to statute.”

According to Buchanan, the regulation amounts to a “massive expansion” of the department’s authority” that will lead to “mass borrower confusion.”

The ambiguity could enable the department to treat borrowers differently “depending on political winds of administrations,” he said.

Some advocates, including Yael Shavit of the Massachusetts Attorney General’s office, “strongly” disagreed with this take. They said an 80% likelihood of defaulting is grounded in evidence and is a sure-fire means of determining someone is in hardship.

Others asked whether the department was willing to consider a different threshold. Abernathy, a coordinator for the department's talks, said yes – in what appears to be officials’ first time acknowledging they’re open to changing the calculation.

Unique opportunity: Some relief would be ‘one-time effort’

Abernathy clarified Thursday that the forgiveness for borrowers deemed “highly likely” to default would only be a one-time effort.

In other words, that forgiveness could probably come in one big batch. Statistics and computer modeling would also play a major role in figuring out who would make the cut, rather than staffers combing through piles of requests.

The second big part of Biden’s proposal – figuring out who should get their debt canceled because of “hardships" – would be more of an ongoing process, she said.

Fair calculation: Left-leaning think tank weighs in 

As Thursday’s talks were getting started, an official from the Center for American Progress, a premier left-leaning Washington think tank, chimed in on the forgiveness formula for debt relief.

The group published new findings to urge the Education Department to use debt-to-income ratios – measuring loan forgiveness based on the ratio of how much someone earns to how much that person owes – to calculate who should get their loans canceled.

The group is also the former employer of Ben Miller, deputy undersecretary of education. Miller has played a central role in the student debt relief talks.

How to watch and comment: Debates over latest student loan relief proposal 

Before the pandemic, neg reg sessions were held in person, in a hearing room in Washington, D.C. Few members of the public were able to listen in on the discussions. But since then, and in the wake of the pandemic, the format has changed.

Friday's session will run from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., ET with an hour lunch break at noon. You can sign up here to watch. The rough agenda can be found here. There will not be a public comment period during the Friday session.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Biden's student loan forgiveness talks near end. Here's a recap.