When Amelie Welman heard about the Biden administration’s student debt relief plan, she thought, for the first time in more than three decades, that she might actually get to pay off her student loan debt before she died.
At 62, Welman, a New Orleans resident, has felt trapped by her debt for decades. She enrolled in college in the mid-1980s while working full time and raising a child. By the time she graduated nine and a half years later, she had taken out just under $15,000 in federal loans. Over the next 30-something years, Welman worked mostly in the nonprofit sector, taking part-time jobs to earn a little extra money on the side. She lived paycheck to paycheck for a while after her divorce, and while she is making better money now, whatever money she has leftover each month goes toward her student debt.
Since graduating, Welman has paid $23,000 toward her loans. She still owes $31,000.
“To me,” she told BuzzFeed News, “[it] seems like I got a loan through a loan shark.”
In August, President Joe Biden announced he would forgive up to $10,000 of student loans for people who earn under $125,000 a year and up to $20,000 for Pell Grant recipients. For Welman, having $10,000 shaved off her debt means she might actually get to retire by the time she turns 70.
But the pushback against student debt cancellation has been resounding. Some elected officials said they were outraged at the idea that anyone deserved to get their debt canceled. The Senate minority leader, Republican Mitch McConnell, framed Biden’s plan as “a slap in the face” to those who “sacrificed” to pay off their debt or avoid taking it on. Critics have painted borrowers as lazy, irresponsible, and entitled and claimed they are simply looking for a handout from the government.
That is not how Welman sees herself.
“I’ve worked very hard and a lot of hours throughout my life to keep my finances ... in check, and keep myself from being homeless,” she said. “I feel I’ve been very responsible, and for people to characterize me as irresponsible, it’s just really hurtful.”
On Sept. 27, the Pacific Legal Foundation, a conservative nonprofit, announced a lawsuit against the Department of Education to block student debt relief, which it called “illegal.” An attorney for the group echoed the criticism that student debt cancellation is “unjust to those who have paid their loans or never took any” and said it would divide the country even further. Two days later, six GOP state attorneys general sued the president and the Department of Education, arguing that Biden’s plan is unconstitutional. Another lawsuit was filed on Tuesday by the Wisconsin Institute of Law and Liberty, which takes particular issue with the White House’s claim that its plan will help narrow the racial wealth gap because Black borrowers are especially burdened by student debt. The lawsuit called it “discriminatory” because the White House “articulated an improper racial motive.”
Parts of the program have already buckled as the legal challenges loom. On Sept. 29, the Department of Education announced that borrowers with private loans guaranteed by the federal government will be excluded from the plan, even though they were initially eligible for up to $10,000 or $20,000 of relief, Politico reported. The change would affect about 3% of previously eligible borrowers, or 770,000 people, a Department of Education spokesperson told BuzzFeed News.
Millions of Americans are stuck in the same trap as Welman. Collectively, student loan borrowers in the US owe $1.75 trillion — more than the GDP of Brazil, Australia, or Mexico. With ballooning tuition costs and uneven interest rates on loans, that debt has become an oppressive financial burden for borrowers, locking them in financial precarity for much of their lives.
Skyrocketing tuition costs have “absolutely contributed to this out-of-control student debt crisis,” Natalia Abrams, founder and president of the Student Debt Crisis Center, told BuzzFeed News. “Especially after the 2008 financial crisis there was so much state disinvestment, which is the states taking money away from the higher education budgets, which are not protected the same way K-12 are.”
State spending on public colleges and universities remained historically low even a decade after the recession, the Center of Budget and Priority Policies found. In that time, tuition costs soared, burdening families and students of all ages. A 2019 study from the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce found that the average cost for an undergraduate degree, including tuition, fees, and room and board, has increased 169% since 1980. (Biden’s plan does not address rising tuition costs, which many have said are the root of this crisis.)
According to the Federal Reserve, 67% of people who take out student loans are under 40 years old; these borrowers owe about 57% of the total student debt amount. Black students collectively owe more money than their white counterparts upon graduation, a disparity that increases more than threefold over the next few years, a Brookings Institute study found.
To be clear, the student debt crisis is not just about people who went to college. It also affects people who sought out other post–high school education, Abrams said, including certification programs and cosmetology licenses.
“They’re multigenerational from all different walks of life,” she said. “The majority of borrowers that call us call to figure out how to pay their loan back. These are not people asking for a handout. They’re asking for equity.”
Abrams called Biden’s plan “a big step in the right direction.”
“This is by far the largest reform of broad-based student debt cancellation we’ve seen on one hand,” she said. “On the other hand, we talk to so many borrowers with much higher balances that this is a drop in the bucket.”
Even temporary relief in the form of the COVID-era payment pause has been life-changing for many. In multiple surveys conducted during the pandemic, borrowers told the Student Debt Crisis Center that the suspension of federal student loan payments and interest was “by far the best pandemic relief they received, beyond the stimulus checks,” Abrams said.
For Hannah Liligren, 37, it meant an extra $500 a month in her pocket. With that money, she and her husband moved from California to Minnesota, where they bought a house. They paid off their cars and finally started putting a financial safety net together.
Liligren took out approximately $40,000 in federal loans and $70,000 in private loans for her graduate degree. She had already paid off her $78,000 undergraduate loans after 10 years of putting most of her income toward it.
Biden’s relief plan, she estimated, would lower her student debt by $20,000 because she received a Pell Grant. But her remaining debt is so monumental that she feels like it’s not just a part of her life; it’s part of her identity.
Liligren and her husband don’t go out drinking often, they don’t travel much, and every extra unexpected penny she gets goes toward paying off her loans. She does not consider herself financially irresponsible — to keep track of her finances, Liligren uses a spreadsheet and a budgeting app.
The pushback against student debt relief irked her. Liligren said that those who, like her, graduated into the 2008 financial crisis were “dealt a card that was way shittier than a lot of other generations before us.”
“I don’t play the victim card, but I completely understand the interplay of graduating into a recession, getting paid less than people graduating [before] me, and having to really claw my way up to where I am now,” she said.
Several people who spoke to BuzzFeed News said the importance of higher education was drilled into them in high school, often presented as the only path to a well-paying job. And if they had to take out loans for college, well, that was just part of the deal: a high-risk investment for a high return.
“These are 18-year-old kids that probably don’t even have credit cards or even understand what a credit card is, who are being saddled with tens of thousands of dollars’ worth of debt,” Julia Feld, a 24-year-old in Florida, said.
That was how it was for Feld, whose parents pushed her to go to college. She graduated with a bachelor’s in tourism in 2020, ready to dive into an industry that came to a standstill for much of the year. Feld entered the workforce saddled with more than $28,500 of student debt.
After graduating, Feld took on any job she could find: she delivered pizza, worked at Chick-fil-A, made deliveries for Instacart, and for six months was an EMT at a hospital. In January this year, she accepted a job at Animal Kingdom at Walt Disney World Resort in Florida, relieved to finally find work in a field related to her degree.
Feld said she’s trapped in a “vicious circle” of throwing money each month toward her debt and watching helplessly as the amount stays more or less the same. She said she had an idea of what she was signing up for when she put her name down on her student loans as a teenager, but she felt like she had no choice.
“It was just a thing that got done. If I was going to go to school — which, I was told I had to go to school — I had to take a loan,” she said.
For Welman, the woman in New Orleans, higher education fulfilled its promise to her. She was the first person in her family to graduate from college, and her accomplishment started a chain reaction.
“I know that there were doors open to me that wouldn’t have been open to me without the degree,” Welman said.
“Now we have other people in my family who have gone to college and gotten their degrees,” she added. “So yeah, I feel proud to have been the first to show that, you know, we can do this. Doesn’t matter where we’ve come from — we can get an education and we can move our families forward.”
Not everyone sees it that way. Despite the mountain of debt that Liligren’s graduate degree cost, it helped her land a job that pays close to $120,000 — nearly three times the salary she earned without a master’s.
“It’s complicated. Education should not cost this much,” Liligren said. “So is my degree worth $120,000? Nobody should pay that.” ●