Why Canceling Student Loan Debt Is Important for Racial Justice


To say that the Biden administration inherited a slew of major issues when they took office in January is an understatement—and top among them is the student debt crisis, which is estimated to be approximately $1.6 trillion dollars these days. When President Biden and Vice President Harris were sworn in, they vowed to erase student loans—but now months have passed without change. And for every day of inaction, present and former students are drowning in debt and demanding the administration give loan forgiveness the gravity it deserves.

Liz King, director of education equity for the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, says it’s a symptom of our broken system of higher education, particularly for students of color. “As we wrestle with deep structural inequalities and the significant harms of a global pandemic, student debt forgiveness provides a clear path to support families and racial equity,” King tells Cosmopolitan, before elaborating:

“Student loan debt is a barrier to homeownership and the financial stability it can provide, it’s a barrier to higher education for the next generation, and it is a daily weight for people who are already shut out of so much economic opportunity. After decades of policies that privilege generational wealth and compound the effects of economic inequality, student loan debt cancellation provides a clear and direct opportunity to interrupt that cycle and begin to get things on a more equitable track.”

Here, I spoke to five people from around the country who are dealing with student debt to learn the impact loan forgiveness could have on their lives and what they want to see from the Biden administration.


“AT THIS RATE, THERE’S NO END IN SIGHT”

“It’s almost unfathomable to think of what my life could be without any student loan debt. When I took out my first loan to pay for undergrad, I was only 18 and I accepted that this debt would either follow me until it was forgiven (through the very flawed Public Service Loan Forgiveness program) or until I died. It certainly wasn’t a life goal of mine to have a six-figure cloud of debt looming over me, but I never felt like I had a choice. I come from a middle-class, working family. My parents are immigrants from Trinidad and Tobago, and I’m the oldest child as well as the first person in my immediate family to have the traditional four-year college experience. My parents did the best they could with what we had, but when the time came to pay the exorbitant sum for my undergrad degree, taking out a loan felt like the only option. And when faced with the same choice to pay for my graduate degree, I considered it an investment in my upward career mobility.

“But now, six years after finishing undergrad and three years after completing my Master’s degree, I’m discouraged and concerned about whether or not I will ever truly be debt-free. Because I’ve chosen to pursue a career in nonprofit advocacy, the chances of my being able to pay off my loans in full are unlikely. And given the many issues with the PSLF program, I can’t count on that either.

“As I think about building toward the future, my debt feels insurmountable. It’s almost impossible to save any significant sum of money after I make my monthly payment. At this rate, there’s no end in sight. When people talk about closing the racial wealth gap and ensuring equity for marginalized people in this country, canceling student loan debt would be one of the most impactful things that could happen to improve the financial well-being of so many people. This is particularly true for those of us who come from backgrounds like mine (a Black, queer woman, first-gen American and first-gen college student) and for so many others who come from communities that have historically faced systemic obstacles to achieving economic security. Freedom from student loan debt would mean that I could think more realistically about saving for a home with my partner, I could plan to take care of my parents as they get older, and I might even be able to put money away for my future children’s education so that they don’t have to take out loans of their own. I hope to see the Biden administration come through on its campaign promise to cancel student loan debt and provide relief to so many people facing the crippling reality of this debt every month.” —Arielle, 28, Maryland


“THE AMERICAN DREAM COMES WITH A HEFTY PRICE TAG—SOMEWHERE AROUND $140K”

“My dad, sister, and I emigrated from Jamaica in the mid ’90s. We moved here for a better life; he believed in the American dream. He would always say, ‘In America, you can be anything you want.’ Very cliché. Cue the dramatic music. I don’t think he realized it comes with a hefty price tag, somewhere around $140K. I’ve stopped looking at my student loan debt because it kept me up at night and gave me anxiety. When I log in to make a monthly payment, I avoid looking at the principal because the amount makes my heartbeat erratic. This debt has kept me from applying for jobs I’m passionate about because the salary wouldn’t allow me to support myself and pay more than $1,000 in student loans per month (the minimum payment) and it’s kept me from going on vacations with friends. I’ve had to pay more in apartment deposits because my credit isn’t great. Canceling student debt, as the Biden administration promised to do, is especially important for Black and brown kids who want a chance at the American dream. At this point, it’s hard for millennials to even live with the fear of student debt on their shoulders.” —O’Neil, 30, Maryland

“THROUGH SHEER WILL AND LITERAL LUCK, I MANAGED TO AVOID THE GOVERNMENT’S BEST EFFORTS TO EXPLOIT ME AND MY FAMILY”

“Having recently graduated with my second degree, student loans are, unsurprisingly, not a foreign concept to me. Throughout undergrad, I was essentially told by the government that my parents—two working-class people from rural Appalachia—made too much money for me to qualify for aid. This didn’t deter the government from eagerly granting us loans, however. Thanks to sheer will and good luck, I managed to escape from my first degree with ‘only’ about $20K in debt. The fact that my parents not only took out loans on my behalf but were able to help me handle upfront costs is not because they could afford to, as the government claimed. It was because they took personal financial risks (the government and private banks love to capitalize on struggling families of first-generation college students). It was because they worked overtime (which was luckily available to them). It was because we begged the university financial department for spare money (apparently, there’s a lot of that just laying around for whoever happens to figure out they can ask for it first). So when I say it was by sheer will and literal luck that I managed to finish my degree from a public university in four years saddled only with $20K, what I really mean is that I did it despite the government and private banks’ best efforts to exploit me and my family.

“The Biden Administration can pretend to have their hands tied by Congress, but student debt could be wiped out with the stroke of a pen. It’s too late for me. I’ll be paying this debt back for the rest of my life. I have hope, however, that we can still radically alter the way our higher education system works and the way we access it. We must. If we don’t, it will become as useless as the youngest generations have come to believe after years of jaded experience. Maybe it already has. But maybe, even though I’m stuck inside the burning house, I can help extinguish the fire.” — Marissa, 25, Ohio

“ELIMINATING EVEN JUST $50,000 OF MY LOANS WOULD BE A GREAT RELIEF”

“After completing my undergraduate and graduate degrees from a private university, I have $200K+ in student loans to pay off. At some point, I stopped counting how much debt I was in because it became too overwhelming to even think about. To help pay for these degrees, I took out private and federal loans, used personal savings, and my parents dipped into their retirement money and refinanced their house. Even with scholarships, financial aid, and working part- and full-time jobs while earning my degrees, tackling all this debt seems impossible. Before the pandemic hit, my monthly loan payments were more than my monthly rent in D.C. I currently have a full-time and a part-time job but saving for a house, wedding, and a family or buying a car or home are just not realistic to me at this point due to my student loan debt. Eliminating even just $50,000 of my student loans would be a great relief, but it’s only a start. As a Black woman, the full cancellation of my debt will help me build generational wealth that my family did not get to earn. If the Biden-Harris administration truly cares about addressing racial and economic justice and leveling the playing field, eliminating student debt is a great place to start.” —Kelsey, 27, New Jersey

“THERE IS JUST ONE BARRIER AFTER ANOTHER TO EDUCATE PEOPLE WHO COULD BE POTENTIAL CHANGE LEADERS”

“My first experience with student loans came with my enrollment in law school. COVID-19 completely derailed my savings plan to alleviate financial stress during my first year of law school, so I found myself taking out the maximum amount of debt to pay for my tuition and living costs. As I navigated my way through FAFSA, I found that debt is a trigger and fell into a depression. During the summer of 2020, before I had even taken a class, I became concerned with the fact that I would graduate with tons of debt to pursue my career. I tried to find repayment programs that would help me out, but it was weird and terrifying to me that the level of interest equaled almost another semester in school. It is counterintuitive to finish a rigorous graduate program just to be controlled by your debt for the next decade. I wish I had more of an idea about financing my legal education before I started and that I did not have to figure out tips and tricks on my own. It is discouraging to know that I will be fighting injustice as a lawyer with thousands of dollars in debt in addition to the hardships of being a part of the 5% of lawyers who are Black. There is just one barrier after another to educate people who could be potential change leaders. Student debt should not be one of them.” —Imani, 23, Virginia


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