DENVER — President Joe Biden has said he will announce some sort of decision regarding student loan forgiveness in the coming weeks.
He has ruled out canceling $50,000 in debt per borrower, which several progressive politicians and activists have called on him to do. But, on the campaign trail in 2020, he pledged to cancel up to $10,000 as president. Recently, former press secretary Jen Psaki said the relief could be targeted at those making less than $125,000 per year.
Collectively, Americans currently owe almost $1.75 trillion in student loans, with about one in eight having some level of student loan debt, according to NerdWallet. However, even among just those who have student loans, there is a great amount of debate about what should be done — and if widespread loan forgiveness is a good idea.
The case for forgiveness: Gabi, a first-generation college student
We met Gabi Gonzales just past noon, out on the Pearl Street mall in Boulder.
By that point, she already had three hours of classes under her belt — she’s knocking out classes during a summer semester at University of Colorado Boulder to save money on tuition — and she was starting her work shift as an organizing fellow for New Era Colorado, a youth civic engagement organization.
“Since it’s summer and school’s out, we’re out here street teaming,” Gonzales told us in between interactions with shoppers out on Pearl Street. “We were talking to a lot of people about student debt, and a lot of people were coming to us, telling us their stories.”
The stories Gonzales hears about the weight of student debt often remind her of her own.
Her role with New Era Colorado is the fourth job she’s worked during college to help cover the costs of her education. She’s a first-generation college student, and said her parents are putting it all on the line to get her through to graduation.
“I do have conversations with them a lot about that burden,” Gonzales said. “And I do feel guilty. Earlier this semester, I had a conversation on whether or not I wanted to go back home, so tuition would be less costly on everyone involved.”
READ MORE: State attorneys general call for full cancellation of federal student loan debt
Between her time at CU Boulder and her freshman year at Texas Lutheran University, Gonzales expects to graduate with about $170,000 in debt. She and her coworkers at New Era Colorado feel tomorrow’s workers are being crushed and forgotten, and they’re pushing on leaders to forgive student loans.
“That would be such a huge weight off my shoulders,” Gonzales said. “Because I wouldn’t have to worry about my parents.… Everyone deserves an education. Everyone deserves to have an opportunity to be successful and to have open doors and opportunities.”
The costs of going to college have gone up dramatically and continue to climb. According to NerdWallet, the cost of tuition at public colleges and universities has gone up by 233% since 1973, and overall student debt has increased by 266% since 2006. Meanwhile, workers at the median wage percentile only saw an hourly pay growth of half a percent per year.
The case against forgiveness: Leila, who paid her loans off during the pandemic
On the flip side, there’s another relevant statistic in this discussion: 18% of student loan borrowers continued to make payments throughout the pandemic, even when they weren’t required to. Former President Donald Trump put a moratorium on required payments and interest in March 2020, and President Biden has extended it several times.
Leila Sueper in Parker is among those who continued to diligently make monthly payments, as most did not.
“I saw it as an opportunity,” Sueper said of the pause. “I’m not accruing any interest, and it’s a chance for me to pay what I was normally paying at least.”
Sueper said she had a “significant amount of debt that needed to be paid” after graduating from the University of Colorado Denver in 2003 — in the neighborhood of $50,000. She even made the decision to leave Boston University, where she spent her freshman year, based in large part on the higher cost of tuition and the financial aid available.
Sueper carried that debt for the next 18 years — a feeling she described as “heavy” — until the pandemic pause in accrued interest gave her a chance to pay down the remaining balance. She still remembers the spring day in 2021 when, sitting on her computer at her dining room table, she made her final student loan payment.
“It was amazing,” she recalled. “It was amazing. It’s one of those... You just feel like, I don’t know, 10 pounds lighter. You feel really good. You feel really good. And then you start thinking about all the things you’re gonna do with your extra money.”
It was around the same time as Sueper was making her final student loan payments that the idea of debt forgiveness started to become more mainstream politically, which didn’t sit right with her.
READ MORE: Who will be upset if President Biden cancels some student debt? / There ain't no such thing as a free education | Your Opinion
“There was a knee-jerk reaction — like, oh my gosh, I just finished paying this, I should have done what everybody else did and not paid,” she said. “And then maybe I would have had a chance at having it forgiven. I felt kind of cheated. And then, it was like, ‘Yep, I don’t have to deal with it. And I’m done. And it’s fine.’ When I signed my name for those loans when I was 18, I knew that I was going to have to pay it back. Life is about choices. And life is about sacrifices.”
A new path gains momentum
Fewer Americans are making the specific choice Sueper described in recent years. Undergraduate enrollment at colleges and universities dropped by more than 6% between 2019 and 2021, according to the National Student Clearinghouse.
However, not every school has seen this decline.
Amid the dramatic rise in costs of higher education, students like Noel Hernandez of Denver are taking another route: trade school. Hernandez talked to Denver7 about his decision to take this approach in between his final classes for his auto collision repair certification at Emily Griffith Technical College.
“I was kind of born and raised on a farm,” Hernandez said. “So, I just always used to work with my hands. And then, kind of looking at it with COVID (and) everything else, I’ve always just seen trades was kind of where the money is at.”
It’s not that a traditional four-year college experience never crossed Hernandez’s mind. At the age of 17, he joined the Marines to make a college degree a financially viable option. His service to the nation offered him the chance to go to New Mexico State University, but it didn’t last long.
“It wasn’t really my thing,” Hernandez said. “I did about two and half weeks, dropped out, and went to trade schools. I couldn’t stand sitting at a desk and standing around doing a bunch of paperwork and everything else. Nothing against it, it just wasn’t for me.”
Hernandez, and every single one of his classmates at Emily Griffith Technical College, will graduate without a cent in student loan debt. As a public school, it offers grants and scholarships that cover most costs, and many students take part in apprenticeships along with their lessons to help cover the rest. Classes are scheduled around work shifts to enable students to continue working while receiving their education.
“When you come to us, you’re not going to graduate with a loan with us, and you’re not going to graduate with debt,” said Randy Johnson, executive director at Emily Griffith. “That’s amazing, especially when you walk away with a professional certification and a skill that carries you through life.”
Instructors at Emily Griffith have found that the pandemic has caused many people to rethink their life plans, and look to gain new skills and certifications that will enable new careers, often in higher paying fields.
“Essentially, I want to be the jack of all trades, and master of all, not master of none,” Hernandez said, summarizing his vision for post-certification life. “That’s all more or less what I’m looking for.”
What comes next
These are just a few of the millions of different stories and perspectives of the costs and rewards of higher education. We want you to weigh in, too. Email us at email@example.com with your opinions and stories.
An announcement from President Biden on possible student loan forgiveness could come any day.
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