Borrowers remain in limbo
By Charlene Crowell | Special to OW
A Feb. 28 rally held on the steps of the Supreme Court of the United States is believed to be the largest-ever event supporting student loan cancellation. The four-hour rally featured more than 30 speakers as diverse as they were dedicated.
It coincided with the court’s scheduled oral arguments in a case brought by eight states which have challenged the legality of granting up to $20K in federal loan forgiveness for eligible borrowers.
Until the nation’s highest court makes its far-reaching decision, 26 million borrowers who qualified for loan forgiveness, and an additional 16 million with pending applications, remain in financial limbo, uncertain when or if the nation’s highest court will allow cancellation of unsustainable student loan debt incurred in pursuit of higher education and a better life.
The future of loan forgiveness is also important to multi-generations of families spanning grandparents and other older members helping to pay for the high cost of college by using retirement funds and/or Social Security benefits to lessen debt burdens.
At the same time, younger generations are prevented from purchasing a home, starting a business, or even furthering their own education.
Billed as the People’s Rally for Student Debt Cancellation, the event culminated months of mounting advocacy supporting forgiveness that revived rounds of advocacy in the aftermath of the states’ legal challenge. Over the ensuing months, diverse advocates—college and university professors, civil rights organizations, public policy advocates and others—all united in defense of student loan borrowers.
“Like millions of Black borrowers denied the ability to build generational wealth, I know the burden of student loan debt,” said Mass. Rep. Ayanna Pressley, a member of the Congressional Black Caucus who spoke at the rally. “I know what it is to land in default when your family is tripped up on economic hard times…The only shame is that this nation has burdened families with crushing debt.”
Many other borrowers — not as widely known — also made their way to the Supreme Court steps to share their personal struggles with student loan debt.
For example, Ashley Green from St. Petersburg, Florida shared how after 10 years, her $78,000 in loans ballooned to over $112,000. “I’ve paid back about $58,000, so I still owe about as much as I’ve taken out,” Green told the rally.
The NAACP’s sponsorship of eight buses enabled many college students to attend and participate in related activities.
“The Justices must take this call for action seriously and consider the immense responsibility that they have to ensure the economic prosperity of the next generation,” commented Derrick Johnson, NAACP president and CEO. “The NAACP won’t stop pushing until student debt cancellation is a reality.”
The Center for Responsible Lending (CRL) has led efforts advocating for cancellation of student debt. Through a series of consumer surveys and research, CRL has documented the disproportionate racial burden endured by Black borrowers.
Last November, CRL research found that student debt limits career choices and complicates homeownership for HBCU alumni, which contributes to the nation’s long-standing racial wealth gap. This report also found that the pause on student loan payments provided much-needed relief to borrowers; but its approaching expiration would create additional financial challenges for struggling graduates.
Similarly, a consumer survey commissioned by CRL found:
• The loan payment pause helped roughly 40 percent of student loan borrowers pay for daily expenses (food, gas, transportation, etc.);
• Low-income borrowers in loan forgiveness programs were more likely to skip meals and face wage garnishment throughout the pandemic; and
• The COVID-19 pandemic forced one-third of student debt borrowers to use savings or credit cards to meet overall expenses.
“Student loan debt is both a product of the racial wealth gap and a tool that exacerbates racial inequality,” said Jaylon Herbin, CRL’s director of federal campaigns in a recent interview.
Although President Biden extended the pause on student loan payments until June 30, this final extension is likely to provide financial cover until the nation’s highest court announces its decision on or before that date. However, payments are set to resume 60 days after expiration or once litigation has been resolved — whichever comes first.
In the interim, borrowers should prepare for payment resumption by checking eligibility for other government loan forgiveness programs, or verifying who their loan servicer is. Information from the Federal Student Aid Information Center is available by phone at (800) 433-3243 or online. Now is also a useful time to update related documents like proof of income that can be uploaded on their servicer’s website.
“The legal case for debt cancellation is sound – and so is the moral one,” said Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers which represents more than 1.7 million members.
Charlene Crowell is a senior fellow with the Center for Responsible Lending. She can be reached at Charlene.firstname.lastname@example.org.