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White House updates on student loans, mental health in briefing during HBCU Week

Ben LaBolt, White House communications director, provided updates on President Biden’s student loan forgiveness plan, mental health initiatives and more during a campus press briefing held in commemoration of their HBCU observance week.

Communications Director Ben LaBolt speaking about President Joe Biden’s climate change initiatives during last Monday’s Campus Press Briefing. (Jonelle Echendu/The Hilltop)

White House Communications Director, Ben LaBolt, provided updates on President Joe Biden’s student loan forgiveness plan, student-focused mental health initiatives and the potential of a government shutdown during the White House campus press briefing.

The briefing took place during historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU) observance week, which spans from Sept. 24 through Sept. 30. President Biden declared that all Americans should “observe this week with appropriate programs, ceremonies and activities that acknowledge the countless contributions [HBCUs] and their alumni have made to our country,” in a statement released on Sept. 22. 

The White House announced that the purpose of the commemorative week is to “recommit to supporting and investing in HBCUs so they can continue the essential work of educating and empowering students who enrich the soul of our nation.”

Victor Brice II is a Howard alum from Oakland, California, who partially disagrees with the planning and allotted time to acknowledge the White House’s HBCU week. 

“I don’t think that Americans can adequately celebrate HBCUs within that time frame, but we have to start somewhere,” Brice said. 

“HBCUs have produced prominent figures that contribute to our everyday lives [and] they don’t just perform in these roles for just one week. However, I do believe that the commemoration week is a step in the right direction to identify the impact HBCUs have had and still have in American history,” Brice continued. 

The White House proclaimed that HBCUs are “centers of academic excellence which produce 40% of Black engineers, 50% of Black lawyers, 70% of Black doctors and dentists and 80% of Black judges in the U.S.” According to the White House, the Biden administration has delivered more than $7 billion to HBCUs thus far.

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During the briefing, LaBolt mentioned that the president “understands the importance of a college education,” and recounted its “power to unlock doors of opportunity for millions of students.” According to the White House, the Biden Administration has secured the largest increase in Pell grants in over a decade, as the administration has increased the maximum Pell grant by $900. 

According to LaBolt, the administration also improved the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program, a college affordability initiative for public servants, forgiving $45 billion from teachers with plans to cancel all public servants’ student debt after a decade of consistent payments. The Biden administration has already approved more than $117 billion in student loan debt from 3 million borrowers. 

LaBolt also provided updates on the administration’s latest loan forgiveness plans, including the Saving on a Valuable Education Act (SAVE Act). The program took effect last month and has 4 million borrowers already enrolled, LaBolt said.

LaBolt also said that starting next summer, the SAVE Act will cap loan payments at 5% of discretionary income, ensuring that borrowers aren’t overwhelmed by debt. The plan will also cancel all remaining debt after a certain number of years depending on the borrower’s income. 

The White House also announced that there will be “more action [around] student loan forgiveness in the coming weeks.” LaBolt mentioned that he hopes these initiatives underscore that “the president has our back and he won’t stop fighting to bring the promise of college affordability to more students.” 

Ademola Adeyemi, a senior political science major and psychology minor from Frederick, Maryland, by way of Nigeria, sees the White House’s HBCU observance week as not only a celebration but an opportunity to be proactive.

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“It seems like a thoughtful way to highlight everything HBCUs have done for this country,” Adeyemi said. 

“I think it will be a cool chance to showcase all the accomplishments of the students, teachers, staff and alumni at these schools and it also draws attention to the issues HBCUs face today,” he continued. 

With mental health issues becoming increasingly prevalent on college campuses nationwide, LaBolt highlighted the Biden administration’s response to the alarming trend. According to the American College Health Association, 77% of college students experienced moderate to severe psychological distress in 2022, with 35% of students surveyed being diagnosed with anxiety and 22% with depression. 

Last year, President Biden allocated $1 billion dollars for the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act over the next five years, which will expand young people’s access to mental health services by hiring over 14,000 mental health professionals in school systems nationwide. LaBolt said that outside of schools, more than 2 million students have gained health insurance since the president took office and that the administration has invested $200 million in the 988 national suicide crisis line. 

LaBolt also highlighted the administration’s response to another national emergency – climate change – describing the phenomenon as “the one existential threat to humanity”. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) projects a 2.5°C to 4.5°C increase in global temperatures by the year 2100, and claims it can only be prevented through “mitigation” and “adaptation.” 

LaBolt outlined the administration’s plan for multiple climate change action plans in what he described as “the most substantial domestic and international action that’s ever been taken by a president.” The Inflation Reduction Act, which was announced last year and is the largest investment in climate action in U.S. history, not only seeks to reduce emissions but also accelerate the transition to renewable energy sources. 

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The bill aims to double U.S. solar, wind and battery power thereby cutting emissions in half by 2030, and to create millions of jobs in the process. The Biden administration has also protected over 21 million acres of lands and waters, and established five national monuments. 

The American Climate Corps is another new program that seeks to employ 20 million young people by providing training in “land restoration, clean energy sources and energy-efficient technologies,” according to LaBolt.  

Near the conclusion of the press briefing, LaBolt mentioned the potential of a Republican-led government shutdown. “One thing we are monitoring is the extreme House Republican threat to shut down the government, which [would] affect some programs across the board,” LaBolt said.   

Although the Senate passed legislation to avert the expected shutdown of the federal government as reported by the Associated Press, Adeyemi expressed concern about the repercussions of a potential government shutdown in the future.

“This is an avoidable problem that shows our leaders and lawmakers just aren’t working together well enough. It could affect millions of Americans who rely on welfare programs, student aid or federal services, especially in Washington D.C., where the city’s budget and operations depend on Congressional approval,” Adeyemi said.

Despite the deterred government shutdown, Brice highlighted that any government shutdown would significantly impact non-government workers.

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“As a property manager, I have experienced the impact of government assistance associated with tenants that rely on the government’s support in their everyday living such as subsidized housing and welfare. People are struggling as it is,” said Brice.

Despite the possibility of a future government shutdown, the White House reported that the Biden Administration continues to advance the president’s student loan forgiveness and cancellation initiative. Thus far, the administration has forgiven $39 billion dollars in student loan debt according to the U.S. Department of Education. 

Copy edited by Alana Matthew

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