‘We just keep getting hit’: Borrowers rally over Supreme Court case on student loan debt relief

Written by on February 28, 2023

Buying a house or a car. Saving for retirement. Getting a prescription. Paying rent. These are among the countless goals and basic needs student loan borrowers say they’ve struggled to meet thanks to the crushing debt they accumulated for degrees that haven’t always led to livable salaries. 

Scores of these borrowers gathered in front of the Supreme Court on Tuesday as the justices heard arguments in two lawsuits challenging President Joe Biden’s student loan forgiveness plan. The activists’ optimism about the prospect of debt relief – and calls for full-blown cancellation – came in sharp contrast to discussions happening within the court, whose conservative justices expressed deep skepticism about the plan. 

Eliana Reed, 26, stands outside the Supreme Court as justices heard arguments about President Joe Biden's student loan debt forgiveness plan.

In August, Biden, trying to keep a campaign promise, offered to cut up to $20,000 in student loan debt for borrowers with individual incomes less than $125,000. The plan would reach roughly 40 million Americans, the vast majority of borrowers.

Tens of millions of them applied for the relief before it was blocked in court. Biden’s plan, which has been criticized by those on the left and right, has faced various lawsuits, some of which are stalled in court and others of which have been thrown out. 

Two separate cases before the court challenged Biden’s authority to forgive loans on such a large scale. One suit was brought by a group of six conservative states; the other on behalf of two borrowers. 

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‘So obviously wrong’

Eliana Reed, 26, has about $17,000 left in student loan debt – even though she attended college tuition free. She had to take out loans to cover all the other expenses that come with going to college – books, housing, food, technology. “That $10,000 would’ve helped me out a lot,” said Reed, who attended a private university in Wisconsin and now works with the Alliance for Youth Action.

“This is an issue that taps so many different groups of people and so many different age groups,” Reed said. That 43.5 million Americans are drowning in a total of nearly $1.8 trillion in loans “feels so obviously wrong,” she said. “It was so easy for (Republicans) to in 2020 to support businesses, but now that there are similar programs to support the people it’s becoming a problem.”

For Maggie Bell, a 24-year-old organizer from Georgia, student debt relief is a racial justice issue. 

Black and Brown Americans are disproportionately likely to take on student loan debt, and as a consequence face added barriers to economic mobility once they graduate, if they can afford to. 

Going into college, Bell, like many of her peers, understood little about the stakes and obligations that come with student loans, including the sky-high interest rates of private ones. Bell has $40,000 total in debt, including $10,000 through private providers. 

Maggie Bell, 24 and the organizer of a group called Cancel Loans for Education and Reparations, graduated from Albany State University, a Georgia HBCU. She used a Pell Grant and has roughly $40,000 in debt. Of that, $30,000 is federal student loan debt, so President Joe Biden's proposal to forgive $20,000 of that would be lifechanging. She and others from the group traveled to the Supreme Court in Washington during arguments on Biden's loan forgiveness proposal.

She continues to dip into her modest savings to make ends meet. Her goal of becoming a young homeowner feels far out of reach. 

“Not having student loan debt opens the gates for me to have more opportunities at living life, like capital letters LIVING LIFE,” she said.

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Amy Czulada is in her mid-30s and still has more than $100,000 in debt for her undergraduate and master’s degrees. 

She’s avoided looking at the exact figure lately, and that’s been possible thanks to a temporary pause on student loan payments. There’s no firm date as to when the pandemic-era pause, initiated under former President Donald Trump and extended under Biden, will end. But depending on how the suits fare at the high court, borrowers could have to resume their repayments in the next few months.

Amy Czulada, 34, still has more than $100,000 in student debt. An organizer with the Student Borrower Protection Center, Czulada has at times had to choose between paying off her loans or paying for basic expenses.

“I certainly don’t regret getting an education, but it has inhibited me from doing things,” Czulada said. “You’re always making hard choices – ‘Do I pay off my student debt or get a prescription or go to dinner?’ Things that are kind of taken for granted. … You are tied to this debt and have to live with it and work to pay it off.”

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Antwan McPherson and Justice Stanton, both 19, traveled to Washington from North Carolina to rally for student debt forgiveness – even though it would not apply to them.

The two students at North Carolina A&T are freshmen yet have already accumulated thousands in debt. “I’ve come to understand early how much debt I’ll have if I continue on,” said McPherson, a Chicago native. 

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McPherson and Stanton were among the busloads of current college students who gathered in front of the Supreme Court on Tuesday aiming to show how the threat of crushing debt has already undermined their higher education experiences. 

Ashleigh Mosely, a student at Albany State University in Georgia, was one of dozens of borrowers to travel up to D.C. to rally in favor of student loan debt cancellation. "We just keep getting hit and knocked down," she said of all the burdens to accessing and thriving in higher education.

“We are young women and men in college trying to figure out a way and we just keep getting hit and knocked down.” said Ashleigh Mosely, a transfer student at Albany State, a public HBCU in the southwest corner of Georgia. Mosely already had tens of thousands in debt by the time she switched schools. “The system is not designed for us to win.” 

Hoping to leave her with as small a bill as possible post-college, Mosely’s parents have contributed when and as much as they can, but considering all the expenses of going to school not to mention the interest, it barely makes a dent. “You already have enough burdens while you’re in school, then once you leave it’s another burden (of finding a decent-paying job) and then this massive burden of student loans.”

Jason Lowe, a senior at Albany State University in Georgia, traveled up to Washington, D.C., by bus with dozens of his peers to rally in favor of student loan cancellation. For Lowe and others, such forgiveness can serve as a form of reparations for Black and Brown borrowers.

Jason Lowe, a senior at Albany State, said he’s regularly questioned the worth of the college degree for which he’s sacrificed so much. “Honestly, I stopped counting at $20,000,” Lowe said when asked how much he already owes. “I go in to sign the terms and conditions at the beginning of every semester, look at the number and it just keeps going,” he said. “I’m like, ‘it’s already past what I can afford.”

Because of the cost, Lowe hasn’t been able to go to school every semester. “When I see that (debt) continue to pile up, I begin to think and question, like, man, is there a way I will ever come up with the money to put towards that?”

Contact Alia Wong at (202) 507-2256 or awong@usatoday.com. Follow her on Twitter at @aliaemily.

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