Katelyn Umholtz still owes nearly $25,000 in college debt. Umholtz said when she first heard the news that President Joe Biden was ordering the partial forgiveness of student loan debt like hers, she immediately texted her family to celebrate.
“It’s a big and exciting deal for us,” Umholtz told VOA. “My sister has a bunch of student debt, too. We came from a low-income family and our dad told us taking out loans was the only way we could go to college.”
According to U.S. government data, Americans owe a combined total of $1.6 trillion in college debt, nearly equivalent to the size of the entire economy of Australia or Brazil.
In August, President Biden gave hope to tens of millions of these borrowers. He announced that the government would forgive $10,000 of federal student loan debt for any American who earns less than $125,000 per year. Loan recipients who received a Pell Grant — typically for lower-income students who demonstrate a financial need — would have an additional $10,000 forgiven in the president’s plan.
Excitement reached a fever pitch last week as the program’s online application went live. Already more than 22 million individuals have signed up via the digital form.
To borrowers like Umholtz, there is a hope partial student debt forgiveness can provide essential relief as crippling cost of living increases and record-level inflation hinder Americans still trying to recover from the economic ramifications of the coronavirus pandemic.
“I’ve never missed a student loan payment,” Umholtz said, “but the payments are high and so are rent, health insurance and other life costs. I’ve taken on medical debt, and I’ve taken on credit card debt. I’m hoping student loan forgiveness can give me space to pay these things off, and then — maybe one day — to think about having a family or buying a home. I haven’t been able to save for any of that yet.”
Despite the progress Biden’s plan has made toward becoming a reality, student loan forgiveness is not yet guaranteed. Six conservative-leaning states filed a lawsuit arguing that the president’s program would hurt companies managing federal loans.
On Friday, a federal appeals court temporarily blocked any debt from being erased until it deliberates on whether canceling student loan debt is within the president’s authority.
In fact, for all the Americans celebrating Biden’s push, many others deride it as an example of unnecessary spending during a period of rising national debt and economic turmoil.
“I think this could all potentially be a publicity stunt to help the president’s Democratic Party during the midterm elections in a few weeks,” said Angelica Garcia, a Republican voter from Saginaw County, Michigan. “If we want to help the economy, this is not the way to do it. It’s wasteful spending and it will have dire consequences for our country’s future.”
Political analysts say disagreement over the wisdom of partially canceling student debt is split the same way many issues are in the United States — along political lines.
“The breakdown is really exactly as you’d expect it to be,” explained Robert Collins, professor of Urban Studies and Public Policy at Dillard University in New Orleans. “The vast majority of Democratic voters — who are also the most likely to go to college as well as to support economic relief for those struggling — are in favor of canceling student debt. The majority of Republican voters are against it.”
A poll conducted last month by Economist/YouGov confirmed this, showing that 80% of Democrats supported college debt cancellation while 72% of Republicans opposed it. Independent voters — especially important because they are less likely to have committed their vote to one of the two main political parties — were split almost exactly down the middle with 44% in favor of Biden’s student debt plan and 42% against it.
Central to the argument of many supporting college debt relief is the belief that student loan providers are acting in a predatory way against borrowers — many of whom are only children at the time they agree to loan terms.
“When you take out a loan on a car or a house, you’re an adult,” Liz Skelding, a teacher in Glastonbury, Connecticut, told VOA. “But I was 17 years old when I signed my student loan paperwork. Nobody explained the terms to me. Nobody explained how interest will compound so I can never get out of debt. I was 17 years old!”
Natalie Krusemeier, a middle school teacher in Ethete, Wyoming, took out $70,000 in student loan debt to obtain associate’s, bachelor’s and master’s degrees. She agrees the current structuring of interest rates makes it difficult to pay off college loans.
“I’ve made my student loan payments every single month, but what do I have to show for it?” she asked. “After the tens of thousands of dollars I’ve paid, I somehow owe $12,000 more than when I began repayment. Everything I’ve paid is going toward interest. This isn’t working. We need help.”
A matter of fairness
For many who have already paid off their student loan debt or who never took out loans to begin with, it feels unfair that taxpayer money would go toward partially relieving others’ debt burdens when they themselves received no such help.
“I paid for my entire education myself,” Denver Mullican, a resident of Natchez, Mississippi, told VOA. “I worked during school and then worked three jobs every summer to afford college. Nine of my closest college friends worked and went to university at the same time too.”
In last month’s Economist/YouGov poll, a majority of respondents (56%) said they felt student loan debt forgiveness was unfair to Americans who already paid off their debts.
Collins, from Dillard University, said he believes a false narrative is to blame for the division on this issue.
“There is this idea that student loan forgiveness is going to have this huge impact on the national debt or on further increasing inflation,” he said, “but that’s not true. Your cost of gas, eggs and milk aren’t going up because a little student debt is forgiven.
“There’s also a narrative among conservatives that student loan forgiveness is helping out spoiled brat, wealthy, elitist college graduates,” Collins said. “As a college professor, I can tell you that’s not true. Most of the people who this is going to help aren’t from wealthy families because then they wouldn’t have needed loans. This relief will go to people who can really use the assistance.”
While the current lawsuit by six Republican-led states has stopped the Biden administration from erasing any debt, it has not stopped them from continuing to encourage borrowers to submit their online applications.
“Amidst Republicans’ efforts to block our debt relief program, we are moving full speed ahead to be ready to deliver relief to borrowers who need the help,” tweeted U.S. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona.
“[It will not] prevent us from reviewing the millions of applications we have received,” he added in another tweet.
The last time the federal government launched a high-profile online presence was a decade ago when the passage of the Affordable Care Act (also known as “Obamacare”) required the creation of an online marketplace. The website frequently crashed and was nonfunctional in its early days, causing anger among voters and embarrassing Democrats.
While some feared the same could happen with the online student loan application, that has so far not been the case.
“It took about two minutes,” Colleen LaFlamme, a musician in Lawrenceville, New Jersey, told VOA. “Incredibly easy. Uncomplicated. User friendly. It was great.”
As the fate of the president’s student loan forgiveness order awaits a decision by the courts, many Americans are wondering how the plan will affect the midterm elections, just two weeks away.
“I think Biden’s trying to falsely paint Republicans as heartless,” said Garcia from Michigan. “He wants to force Republican politicians to block his measure. They’re blocking it because it’s bad for the economy, but it will look like they don’t want to help people struggling with debt.”
While Collins from Dillard University doesn’t think student loan forgiveness will change anyone’s mind on whom to vote for, he does think it could impact the election.
“This election is going to be about who can get their base excited enough to show up and vote,” he said. “Student debt isn’t going to flip anyone’s vote, but it could get more Democratic voters excited enough to go out and cast their ballot. Whether that will be enough to impact the election — we’ll find out soon.”