When the pandemic hit the U.S. in March of last year, sinking the U.S. economy, Jack Sherrick was in his senior year at Carleton College in Northfield, Minn. He made a quick decision about his postgraduation plans that he knew would come with a hefty price tag: going back for more school to get a law degree.
Now a first-year student at Columbia Law School in New York, he says he “wanted to stay in school rather than navigate the job market.” He has already borrowed about $56,000 for the current academic year and expects to have roughly tripled that number by the time he graduates, making him part of the growing legion of Americans with steep student loan debt.
Addressing the student loan crisis was a major issue in the Democratic presidential primary, with candidates offering a variety of plans, ranging from Sen. Bernie Sanders’s proposal to forgive all federally held student loans to Joe Biden’s more modest suggestion to forgive up to $10,000 in debt. Now that Biden is in office, he is facing political pressure from Democrats in Congress, as well as others, to do something more ambitious.
Sherrick likely wouldn’t get immediate relief under any of the student loan forgiveness plans being debated for federal loan holders because his loans are private, but he says he still supports proposals that would help others. But loan forgiveness, he stresses, should also be made “in tandem with efforts to curtail the exorbitant costs of higher education.”
With a college degree becoming a prerequisite for many types of employment, educational debt continues to increase and loan forgiveness “can’t be the sole federal effort in this area,” he said.
But for now, it’s unclear if and when there will even be some amount of student loan forgiveness, let alone something more ambitious than Biden’s $10,000 campaign pledge.
On Biden’s first full day in office, he signed an order extending the pause on student loan payments, first put in place by the Trump administration, to Sept. 30. He has not, however, offered any specific legislative proposal regarding student loans since entering the White House, and a White House spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment.
A number of Democratic senators, including Majority Leader Chuck Schumer as well as Elizabeth Warren and Ed Markey of Massachusetts, are pressing Biden to use presidential authorities to cancel up to $50,000 in federal student loan debt per borrower. Biden, however, has so far stuck to his $10,000 figure and indicated he would submit his proposal to Congress rather than rely on executive authorities, which could face legal challenges.
Yet a number of students now in school, or recently graduated, say what Biden is proposing doesn’t go far enough to address the mounting debt crisis. As of 2020, total student loan debt was at $1.68 trillion, the average American borrower owes $37,584 in student loan debt, and the pandemic-driven economic downturn is expected to make paying back that debt even more difficult.
A senior at Ohio State, who asked that his name not be used to discuss his personal debt, said the student loan system preys on young adults who are taught that a college degree is a necessary step toward success. The student, who has taken out about $7,500 in federal student loans per semester, favors the more generous plan supported by Warren and Schumer.
Students “take out massive loans at a young age without fully understanding the gravity of this decision,” the senior said, a decision that “saddles people with debt that they are forced to pay off potentially for the rest of their lives.”
The student also said that the pandemic, in his case, has added to the debt burden.
“The pandemic had a pretty big impact on my postgrad plans,” he said, leading him to delay his graduation by a semester and add a second major in hopes of making himself a more attractive candidate and entering the job market at a more stable time.
A current Emory University senior, who also asked that her name not be used, expressed similar sentiments. She has taken out $20,000, all in private loans, but says she is not worried about the pandemic’s effects on her immediate postgraduation plans. “I’m supposed to start medical school next year,” she said, “so my application process has remained relatively untouched by the pandemic.”
But the student expressed displeasure at how the current higher education system is set up, which hits students from lower-income households particularly hard. “The administration needs to take a hard look at the economic barriers they allow to be placed within higher education,” she said.
Annika Kersten Wellman, a senior studying nursing at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, says she believes that the administration should at least go for a middle ground of $30,000 in federal loan forgiveness per borrower. That amount would be closer to the national average of student debt and “will help correct the inequity that is student loan debt,” she said.
Wellman, who said she was lucky that she didn’t have to take out loans for her education, supports student loan forgiveness as a way to address the disproportionate burden of education debt on people of color, something that Warren and Schumer have emphasized in their support of student loan forgiveness.
“If this money can go to correct this inequity, I am for it,” Wellman said.
But Travis Hornsby, the founder of Student Loan Planner, cautioned that even modest proposals to relieve debt are doubtful right now. “In terms of every borrower getting $10,000 for forgiveness, I’d put the chances as extremely low,” he said.
He cited Republican opposition as the main barrier, but said that challenge is also from moderate Democrats, who may support some form of loan forgiveness but have other priorities.
Hornsby noted that loan forgiveness was not included in Biden’s proposed $1.9 trillion stimulus package, and, while the president is expected to include it in his second proposal in February or March, “it’s lower on the priority list than political leaders would admit publicly.”
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