“I Can’t Even Retire If I Wanted To”: People With Student Loan Debt Get Real About Biden’s Plan Being On Hold

“To forgive me for $20,000 is nothing. I’m 61 years old. I have been working. I’ve been paying tax.”

President Joe Biden’s one-time federal student loan debt relief program, which would forgive up to $20,000 in loans for federal borrowers, remains on hold after a federal district judge in Texas declared the program unconstitutional earlier this month. The 8th Circuit Court of Appeals in St. Louis issued a nationwide injunction barring the program days later. The whiplash leaves more than 26 million people who applied for relief —16 million of whom were already approved — caught in limbo about the future of their federal student loans. Those who were approved received notice from the Department of Education that their debt will be discharged “if and when we prevail in court." But no new applications are being accepted. Meanwhile, Biden announced on Tuesday that the emergency pause on student loan payments put in place during the pandemic would be extended to "no later than June 30, 2023" so borrowers would not resume payments while waiting for a decision from the Supreme Court on the matter.

I spoke to borrowers around the country, ages 24 to 61, about their financial plans now. Some people who had expected Biden’s program to forgive the remaining balance of their loan were frustrated that critical expenses they had been putting off — such as medical needs, saving for a home, retirement — will continue to be delayed. Some are looking for ways to not pay. Others are resigned to resuming payments until their debt is forgiven under another income-driven plan that cancels the remaining balance on a loan if it isn’t fully repaid at the end of the repayment period, such as Public Service Loan Forgiveness.

People who took out their loans later in life said they feel forgotten about, as they do not have as many decades left to work to pay off their debt, even if they wanted to. Student loans are often discussed as an issue primarily impacting young adults, yet more than half of people with federal student loans are 35 years old and older, including 8.9 million people who are older than 50, Federal Student Aid data shows. Borrowers ages 50 to 61 have the highest average student loan debt ($45,000), followed by 35- to 49-year-olds ($43,000), according to an Investopedia analysis of federal data.

Here’s how the uncertainty surrounding student loan forgiveness is impacting people around the US. Their comments have been edited for clarity and length.

Saphronie Harrell

Age 61
Teacher in White Plains, Maryland
Student loan balance:

$20,000 ($15,000 and $5,000 in Parent PLUS loans for her daughter’s bachelor’s in 2014 and one year of college for another daughter)

I just got a letter that I qualify for forgiveness. When payment starts again, I’m not going to pay it. I’m going to tell them to send the bill to Biden. He told me he was going to pay my bill. This is one time I could struggle and try to make the payment, but I’m not. If you can give billions of dollars to businesses and they don’t have to pay you back, somebody had better find some dollars for me, Saphronie Harrell, who has been a public servant for over 35 years. I volunteer. I have been a foster parent for 15 years. I paid my own student loans. But when my daughter went to college, I was eligible for a Pell Grant — as a professional mother. I shouldn’t even qualify for a Pell Grant, but we teachers don’t get paid enough. That’s how I got these loans. The government needs to find a grant or something to pay my debt too. I just don’t think it’s fair. It is not a handout. I’ve worked since I was 14 years old. I truly have worked. I feel like you’re just giving me a drop in the bucket of all the taxes I’ve paid.

The other thing that hurts me the most is the ones who are rich, the people who have had it easy or had enough money in America, it seems to me they have a problem when you try to help the working class. But they don’t have the same problem with the poor, because they want to feel superior. This was one thing the working class, the working poor, would qualify for. To forgive me for $20,000 is nothing. I’m 61 years old. I have been working. I’ve been paying tax. So everything that you’re giving to me right now, I paid for it. You’re not giving me anything I haven’t deserved.

I can’t even retire if I want to. And I’m too old to try a new career. I’m just stuck. I’m just mad because I feel like everything has let me down.

Elias Hansen

Age 32
Civil engineer in Yakima, Washington
Student loan balance:

$46,000 (bachelor’s in 2014)

When Biden said, “Here’s $20,000 in debt forgiveness,” the masks came off. There were people in the government openly saying, “Oh, if we forgive all the debt, how are we going to get people to join the military? If we forgive all the debt, how can we recruit more people to do these types of jobs, or coerce people to work in the public sector?” When you look at that, you realize it was never about the money for them — it was about power. They use it as a means to coerce people into doing specific jobs and tasks that society deems important. Many people who were screaming about student debt forgiveness and how it’s wrong were the same people who said, “Oh, you can’t give people money. That won’t incentivize work. You can’t give out more welfare. That’ll just make people lazy.” People pointed out their hypocrisy for coming out against student debt cancellation when PPP loans were being forgiven and businesses did absolutely nothing. Now we are saying, “No, you can actually help people, and you should help people.” They’re being exposed as frauds. People are realizing the pundits and economists and consultants hate people who are not rich, and they believe poverty is a sin.

I knew for a fact I wanted to work in the government for three reasons. One, I wanted to actually do some service. I told myself a long time ago I’d rather make $70,000 building public housing than make $500,000 a year building Jeff Bezos’s new fucking mansion. Second, government employment, more often than not, there's some security in it. And third, I knew about Public Service Loan Forgiveness before I graduated, and I was planning to do that. It was a very methodical process. When forbearance ends, I will have trouble paying, and it’s not necessarily because of my job. Obviously, prices are going up for everything too, and I’m taking care of a sick family member who’s currently living with me. I’m also trying to help another family member out a little bit too. But some dark money groups decided they want to keep you in debt forever. And it just pisses me off.

Terese*

Ranger, National Park Service
Age 29
Student loan balance:

$53,000 (bachelor’s in 2015 and master’s in 2019)

This might sound pessimistic of me, but I wasn’t surprised when forgiveness went on hold. I was infuriated that one man, a judge, thinks he has the power to keep millions of people in debt. But at the same time, I was still going to be buried under debt. As a federal employee, I qualify for Public Service Loan Forgiveness, which means if I make loan payments for 10 years, they’ll finally get forgiven. So realistically, was it gonna change my timeline of payments? No.

I was hired as an entry-level park ranger on the government’s General Schedule payscale, which is supposed to be like your first job out of college to get you on your feet. But in the National Park Service, and in a lot of these land management agencies, people have to do seasonal work at this pay grade for several years to get their foot in the door. If you work seasonally for the federal government, you are not allowed to work more than six months. So essentially your wage is cut in half. If your salary is $44,000 a year, you’re really only making $22,000 and then you have to go find a job in your offseason. So it’s really, really tough to scrape by. On top of that, a college degree is the minimum for many of these jobs, and me and a lot of my coworkers have advanced degrees in archaeology, biology, whatever it is, but we’re still getting hired at these really low-paying grade levels. What is so infuriating is I work a federal job that requires years of experience but does not pay me enough to pay my federal loans and still live a decent lifestyle. The whole system is essentially broken. I qualify for Public Service Loan Forgiveness, but other than that, the government expects me to just rough it and work on a really tight budget for the next 10 years. Now loans are coming up, and a lot of us are already barely getting by. I am lucky I no longer work seasonally, or I could not make payments.

*Name changed to protect her identity

Sean Brennan

Age 59
Data governance manager in Cherry Hill, New Jersey
Student loan balance:

$105,750 (bachelor’s in 2010 and master’s in 2012)

The emotion now is a cross between anxiety, frustration, and anger. Anxiety because I’ll find a way, but it’s gonna hurt in when payments restart. I might take cash advances from credit cards to pay student loan debt some months, which doubles down on my credit card debt. Frustration is more from the social climate of the country right now. The people that are opposing forgiveness, it’s none of their business. The judge in Texas or the people filing the lawsuits, what happens to me is none of their business. Why are we in a country where we feel that we have ownership of somebody else’s life or lifestyle? America was a great idea. But I feel like it’s done now. And my anger — I hate generalizing or painting with a broad brush — but it is squarely on Republicans, period. That moderate voice is gone, and you’ve got lunatics running the farm now.

I graduated from high school in 1981 and it was enough for me to get a job first as a computer operator and then develop a career as a computer programmer. Along the way, I got two associate’s degrees, one in communications and one in information systems, and it was fine. The aspiration was always there to fulfill my dad’s dream for me to go to college, but life happens and you don’t think you need it when you have a career that you love, and you’re doing the things you want. Then in the mid-2000s, offshoring positions started to grow. I knew I had to get a bachelor’s degree. I went through an online program in communications and applied technology, and talking to peers, looking at job postings for things that I would want to do — jobs that I knew that I was qualified for — it was all, We need an advanced degree. So $40,000 in student loan debt for undergrad immediately became $80,000 once I got the master’s degree in information systems. I lost my job in July 2012 and completed the master’s in December 2012. I was unemployed for eight months. I have been in forbearance twice. I think I can’t go into forbearance anymore. And there’s a mountain of credit card debt that’s old and recycled debt — I’m paying around $2,500 a month in credit card debt.

All of the trade practices that opened the borders for my job to get outsourced is part of the thing that put me here. I didn’t have a choice. The people who are against forgiveness are either completely against giving anything to anybody else and devoid of compassion, or they’re so selfish, that they can’t see a perspective beyond their own.

According to the student loan repayment plan that I’ve got, before the pandemic pause, without any forgiveness, I am due to be done paying my loans when I’m 83 years old. I don’t know right now if I qualify for any other forgiveness plan. Best-case scenario is my 401(k) plan is enough for me to live on, so that any social security that I get, provided that nobody decides to cut it, would be paying student loans. When I walk past an 83-year-old on the street, I don’t want him to have to use all of his retirement, that he worked all his life for, on his student loans.

Elizabeth Kornblum

Age 31
Hairstylist in Ithaca, New York
Student loan balance:

$20,000 (bachelor’s in 2013)

I’m in my 30s. If I wanted to buy a house, I couldn’t afford to do that. If I wanted to start a family, I couldn’t afford to do that. I can’t even juggle the cost of my student loan debt. And in the midst of all this, I have a congenital neurodegenerative condition where I am losing my hearing.

During the pandemic, one of my hearing aids fell out and got crushed, and the other died four weeks later, after the warranty expired. I have been wearing my brother’s hearing aids for two and a half years, but they are not the same caliber as the ones I had. I cannot afford to start paying student loan debt and pay for the financing of my $9,000 hearing aids. My ability to hear directly impacts my ability to work and support myself. So it just feels like a door is closing, honestly. I once had a person ask, “Why don’t you just sign?” I was thinking, Bitch, do you sign? I could be incredible at signing, but that’s not going to help me communicate with the general population.

If forgiveness had gone through, I would have been a debt-free adult, for the first time. I really thought for a second that I was going to be in a position where I could make financial decisions from a place in my 30s where my life wasn’t where it was when I was 18, but it just feels like you’re being pressed under a thumb. And you’re just stuck in the same fucking space no matter how hard you try. This, combined with all of the other political hits that we’ve taken in the past couple of years, has just really contributed to feeling stuck and very hopeless. I’m really trying not to let this limit everything. I have a friend who is going to help me look into grants for assistive devices. I’m hoping that I can get partial funding and replace my devices next year because I really have lost a lot of hearing since the pandemic, so I can’t keep functioning with the devices that I have now. It’s just not sustainable.

Claire

Age 24
Data analyst in Minneapolis
Student loan balance:

$21,600 (bachelor’s in 2020)

It’s exhausting, but it’s also kind of familiar. This is just how the government works when it comes to things like this. I’m resigned to the idea that this hold is happening, that it is going to affect a lot people, that we’re going to complain about it, and then five years down the line, whichever way it goes, the government is going to act like it didn’t affect a lot of people and this was OK. You can see the writing on the wall already. And it’s not fun.

I graduated in December 2020 and got an internship. Then I got a full-time job. I was looking at the numbers with my current job at a healthcare company, which I got this year, and I figured out pretty quickly that once loan repayment starts, I wouldn’t be able to put away any money for retirement and savings and things like that, and I would have to put my life on hold. I did my degrees in sociology and environmental studies and they definitely did hire me because I had experience in statistics — if you don’t have a degree, you’d need about four extra years of experience. But on my salary, I need a second job to repay my student loans. It’s bullshit. I found a restaurant in the area that was hiring people to work nights and weekends, which was perfect. I work there about three to four nights a week, and it’s about a six-hour shift each time, so 16 to 20 hours a week. So I work about 60 hours a week now, which sucks. I don’t recommend it.

Rain Rodgers

Age 33
Executive assistant in Baton Rouge, Louisiana (unemployed as of September 2022)
Student loan balance:

$6,750 (associate’s in 2016)

I’m just bummed out. It’s so sad to me that this is what’s happening to so many people. And I know that there are so many people that need this help so much more than I do. And maybe they have more than one kid, or even if they have no kids, to be told we’re going to get this forgiven, that this is what is going to happen, and then just to have a group of people so mad that it’s happening that they stop it, it is so backwards.

We’re all taught you need a college degree to do anything. I didn’t start college until I was 24. I didn’t ever expect myself to make anything of myself. My dad always told me I’d be nothing, so I thought I’d be nothing. My grandpa literally forced me into college. When I started, I felt, Yes, this is amazing. I’m so proud of myself to be here. I’ve paid so much money to go to college and then to still have a $6,750 loan — I know I need to pay it back, but shoot, we’re all trying to be better. We’re trying to contribute to a society that doesn’t give us the opportunity to pay these things back. The reason I still even had that loan is because I was so underpaid for so long.

I was recently getting paid more than I’d ever gotten paid, $42,000 a year. But I was dealing with some issues at work and lost my job in September.

Loan forgiveness was going to be a really good thing for a lot of people who are trying to do what they can with their degrees, or just be good people in society. All we want to do is get an education and go be better people and contribute to society. Let’s help the people who are trying.

I have a beautiful life. I’m just sad to be an American now. I hate to say that. I know people die for this country. But in this moment, I feel, why would you do that? We don’t care about veterans, we don’t care about women, we don’t care about mothers, we don’t care about anything like that, the good things that are being a part of this community. I don’t understand it. It’s just such a bummer.

Ben Bertka

Age 46
Sales engineer in San Antonio
Student loan balance:

$111,000 (bachelor’s in 2010 and master’s in 2012)

I feel like leaders are spending too much time asking for permission when they should have just done it and asked for forgiveness later. We could have been debating whether or not it was OK to cancel interest forever in exchange for giving everyone $10,000 to $20,000 in credit now. Instead, we have to deal with something completely different.

I graduated high school in 1994 and traveled around a bit in the US. In the ’90s, without a college degree, I was looking at $4, $5 an hour. Can you make bagels? Can you make sandwiches? I just needed to get into an office because people in offices get paid more. So I was really just trying to get into one of those buildings.

I started community college because I couldn’t afford just to go to school and I had already taken time off. It took me, while working full time, from 2002 to 2006 to finally have enough credits to transfer. I got a Pell Grant and I got some financial aid to go to UC Santa Cruz, which scared the hell out of me because I had zero debt in my life going into that. I completed a full-time, four-year degree in math and computer science while doing work study. I went directly into doing a master’s in software engineering, which was recommended by a professor, to continue my education. Part of the program at the University of British Columbia required that I do an internship, and I found that what I actually learned in my program was already out of date with the industry. I had to completely re-skill when I entered the job market, and I entered at a really low salary. I came out of my master’s degree in 2012 doing software engineering, but getting paid $55,000 a year. I had a child in 2014.

I think my degrees in the beginning helped me get interviews, but it didn’t necessarily give me the skills that I needed in the workplace. I was getting really good at my specialty, but I had to completely pivot into a different career that paid better. And that’s when I started a career in sales engineering in 2014. I went from $50,000 to $80,000. I started getting commission. But I was still one of the lowest people on the team, in terms of salary. When you look at my resume, I’ve had a lot of jobs at a lot of cool companies, but I’m one of those people who has moved a lot, and that’s because I’ve had to deal with starting at the very bottom with heavy pressure to pay back my loans. I’ve been paying through the pandemic pause, and it’s finally going to principal, but once that ends the interest will pick up again.

I’m 46 years old now, and I have no retirement, maybe just several thousand dollars. I am putting all the money into saving for a home. My parents never owned a house. My parents never went to college. I was the first one to actually go, so they didn’t help me with anything, I had to do it all myself from scratch. And so, I’ve come to the realization that I’m living the American dream, but it’s not going to be like some of these other people. I’m basically working to make sure that my daughter has what she needs. That’s the best I can do and maybe hopefully, if I can get a house, I think that’s the investment that will help me out in the long run.

Deanna McLean

Age 51
Graphic designer in Birmingham, Alabama
Student loan balance:

$20,000 (bachelor’s degree in 2003)

The GOP needs to get out of the way. Let the president do his job. It was one of the things that he ran on, and a lot of people voted for him because of it. And it seems like anything that Biden’s tried to do that would better us in any way has just been blocked. I don’t think it’s fair to people that have been paying on their loans forever. I don’t think it’s fair that a certain political affiliation in this country will say they’re fiscally conservative and not want to spend money on this, but will turn around and pay lobbyists to get money from other special interest groups to push what they want through. It’s very hypocritical. Biden can’t stop people from suing him, or getting an injunction against this plan. I will just keep going every day, doing what I can do and pay my bills; just hope for the best but expect the worst.

I went to college, the first time in 1989, with a partial scholarship for music. I decided it wasn’t right for me at the time. I was more interested in partying, so I dropped out. Around 2000, right before my dad passed away, his wish was for me to finish my education. He convinced me to take another stab at it. I was working as a bartender and some days I’d make really good money, and then some days, I wouldn’t. I didn’t have a whole lot of money saved up, so I started taking out Federal Family Education Loans [loans from private lenders that were guaranteed by the federal government], and I knew that I’d have to pay them back and had no problem with that. I’ve been paying on these loans since December 2003. My balance is more now than it was when I took it out when I graduated, and I’ve paid every month without missing a payment going on 19 years now. I refinanced into a direct consolidation loan to be eligible for relief, but I’m worried I’m going to end up paying longer if they restart my clock. I haven’t made a dent, and it’s very frustrating.

I’m a single mom. I was hoping this was going to put back at least a couple of hundred bucks in my pocket every month so I could put it in my 401(k) or at least in my savings account. But I’ll just have to ramp up my side hustle and try to save more that way. ●

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