In 2007, the Bush-era Congress created the Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF) program, also known as 20 USC 1087e (m)(1). The premise of the program was simple: student loan borrowers who made their payments would have any remaining educational debts forgiven after 10 years of public service. Through PSLF, lawmakers and advocates intended to make public service a viable option for more borrowers, including graduates carrying large student loan balances. Unfortunately, this intention has not been realized for most borrowers or PSLF participants. Rife with exclusions and plagued by a history of poor communication and logistical failures, PSLF has historically approved very few borrowers for loan forgiveness even though many have applied.
Following over a decade of activism against the United States’ massive student debt crisis, President Biden announced a plan on Wednesday to cancel a significant amount of student loan debt for tens of millions of low and middle-income Americans. Many organizers, whose work made the announcement possible, have viewed the news as a major victory for their movement. However, they also see it as just a small first step in a country where many borrowers — especially Black and Brown borrowers — are saddled with far deeper debts, and the root causes of educational inequity remain largely unaddressed. “This $10,000 further marginalizes the already most-marginalized,” said Dr. Richelle Brooks, a member of the Debt Collective and founder of ReTHINK It, who currently owes $240,000 in student loan debt.
“I cosigned for 70K in loans to put my disabled grandchild through a private college that would meet his specific needs,” said a 70-year-old debtor I met during the Debt Collective’s virtual older debtors’ assembly in mid-August. “I don’t think I’ll be able to pay off these loans in my lifetime,” another debtor told me. As I listened to these stories in a Zoom breakout room, I couldn’t help but feel overwhelmed by the conclusion that debt controls the lives of millions of people in the U.S., especially our most vulnerable. The Debt Collective, the nation’s first debtors’ union, is known for opening and facilitating powerful forums for conversation that enable folks to release the burden of shame and talk about how debt has impacted their lives. I’ve been organizing with Debt Collective for a year and I have come away with the same conclusion each time I leave an assembly: Americans desperately need full cancellation, and they need it now.
President Biden announced today that his administration was taking two actions with regards to the student debt crisis affecting tens of millions of people in the United States. The administration pushed back the deadline for the resumption of student loan payments until the end of the year, and up to $10,000 of student debt will be forgiven for those making less than $125,000 a year (or $20,000 for Pell Grant recipients). The cancellation of student debt – which now totals over $1.7 trillion – has been a longstanding demand of the mass movements of the past decade. The popularity of this demand and the persistence with which it has been raised has made it impossible for the politicians to completely ignore. Clearly, Biden made the calculation that he could not go to the 48 million people who have student loan debt totally empty-handed.
On September 1, 2021, Hurricane Ida hit Southeast Louisiana, temporarily displacing thousands of New Orleans residents, including myself and most of my family. Residents who had the means evacuated early, leaving others to fight for limited resources while simultaneously seeking refuge in neighboring cities. On top of their pre-existing bills, evacuees were forced to front the costs of hotels, food, gas and repairs or even replacement of their own homes. Natural disasters produce an overwhelming amount of stress and anxiety — you simply don’t know if you will have a house to live in until you are able to return home. I don’t know how my family would have made ends meet if I was forced to cover my monthly student loan payments while struggling to meet these other, unanticipated expenses.
The Debt Collective is upping the ante in their fight for full federal student debt cancellation with their Pick Up the Pen, Joe! rally and day of action today in front of the U.S. Department of Education in Washington, DC. The event comes roughly a month before the pause on loan repayments is set to expire on May 1. Some White House sources have indicated the Biden administration may move that deadline again or forgive some amount of debt, but regardless, the Debt Collective’s focus remains squarely on eliminating federal student debt in full. A broad coalition of more than 50 community organizations and labor unions from across the country are joining the Debt Collective in the nation’s capital to call on Biden to cancel all federal student debt through executive order.
An NBC News story headlined “White House Confronts Political Pressure to Extend Pause in Student Loan Payments Ahead of Midterms” represented much media focus on student loan debt: treating the fact that 45 million Americans owe some $1.7 trillion as an “issue,” an object of debate, a potential election factor. And that’s all true. Student loan forgiveness was one of Biden’s campaign promises. The federal pause on repayments is set to expire on May 1, and what happens with it will have an effect on the president and the party. But, of course, there’s also a much broader and deeper conversation to be had about student loans, and about debt, that hopefully will carry us beyond any particular election cycle. For an update on the current situation and our understanding of what’s at stake, we’re joined now by Braxton Brewington, press secretary and organizer at the group Debt Collective, a membership-based union for debtors and allies.
Last week, White House Chief of Staff Ron Klain hinted that President Joe Biden may soon take action on the nation's $1.7 trillion in student loan debt. Biden has several options at his disposal to aid the nation's 43 million student loan borrowers, experts told the American Independent Foundation. "The president is going to look at what we should do on student debt before the pause expires, or he'll extend the pause," Klain said on the podcast Pod Save America last Thursday. "Right now, people aren't having to pay on their loans, and so I think dealing with the executive branch question, what we should do about that, what his powers are, how much we should do on that, that's something we're going to deal with later on," Klain added.
Despite increasing pressure to fulfill a campaign promise to forgive student debt, President Joe Biden is now going in the opposite direction: His administration has taken an initial step to try to overturn a key legal victory for borrowers, according to court filings reviewed by The Daily Poster. If the administration wins an appeal, it could bolster a legal precedent against millions of debtors being crushed by bankruptcy laws that Biden infamously helped his finance industry donors sculpt during his four decades in Washington. On January 14, a federal judge in Biden’s home state of Delaware moved to eliminate nearly $100,000 in student loan debt held by a 35-year-old epileptic man.
We should take the examples of the Biden administration reversing course on unpopular decisions — refusing to extend the student loan moratorium, refusing to send masks, etc — as but a taste of the power we could have if we used our rage to get organized. Biden and his cronies are far more scared of our power as workers than they are of our tweets. So, what concessions have been given, have been given to stave off the birth of a social movement that could win a lot more.
We, the undersigned 111 student government leaders representing over 1.4 million students, write to urge you to exercise your executive authority, as designated by the Higher Education Act of 1965, to cancel all federal student loan debt immediately. As student leaders, we have seen the harrowing financial, social, and mental health impacts that the crushing weight of student loan debt imposes upon students and alumni by exacerbating the financial insecurity, social inequities, and economic stagnation which impacts over 44 million borrowers in the United States. During the COVID-19 pandemic, the federal government recognized the burden of such debt on borrowers, pausing student loan repayments and lowering the interest rate to 0%.
With many of President Biden’s legislative priorities stalled, pressure is mounting on the administration to use executive authority to cancel student debts — a move that would substantially narrow racial wealth gaps. In a recent House floor speech, Rep. Ayanna Pressley pointed out that the student debt crisis disproportionately impacts the Black community. “But for too long,” Pressley said, “the narrative has excluded us and the unique ways in which this debt is exacerbating racial and economic inequities, compounding our gender and racial wealth gap.” Pressley joined Senators Elizabeth Warren and Chuck Schumer in a December letter to Biden asking that he consider using executive authority to cancel up to $50,000 in federal student loan debts.
The end of medical school is a moment that, for many medical school graduates, is several years — sometimes several generations — in the making. After four grueling years the graduate is ready to officially get that “MD” behind their name. But what else has the four years of medical school done for the soon-to-be physician? As previously discussed, medical school is not an apolitical environment in which “medical knowledge” is simply passed on to each student. Mechanisms are put in place to condition students to be less likely to question systems of power. Overall, the medical school structure serves as an indoctrination system. By the time they graduate, medical students are forced to take on massive amounts of student loans — the average medical school graduate has around $250,000 in student loan debt — which serves as a form of economic control and coercion.
When you look at a student like myself, you don’t know that I am working multiple jobs, that I have gone without health insurance at some points, that I’ve been living at home with my parents for more than a year. You also do not know about my family’s medical debt, or about my father’s periods of unemployment, or that my mother’s job as a preschool aide isn’t enough to cover the gaps. Even though I have mowed my former mailman’s lawn for eight summers to help afford school, even though I secured two “free” years of campus housing through my job as a resident assistant and received numerous scholarships, awards and assistance, I still graduated from a state school with $17,000 in debt. I carry this debt from my bachelor’s degree as I go into my second year of graduate school.
The debt elimination effort was financed through the CARES Act. For scholars who attended the institution during 2020 and spring 2021, all debt owed to the school will be erased. Donald Palm, Ph.D., who serves as Senior Vice President of Academic and Student Affairs, says the effort will play a pivotal role in shaping their financial futures. He also mentioned students should be solely focused on learning without feeling the burden of unaffordability. “We care about our students and their academic success and want to provide them the privilege of moving forward with a zero balance,” he said in a statement. “We believe that relieving them from these balances will provide much-needed relief that will allow our scholars to focus more intently on their academics and degree completion.”