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OPINION

President Biden is considering canceling some student debt. Here’s why he should go big.

These are the faces behind the debt.

A march by groups in favor of canceling student loan debt outside the Department of Education in Washington in April.Kenny Holston/NYT

On Wednesday, Representative Ayanna Pressley hosted a virtual roundtable with the Debt Collective to highlight just how burdensome the student debt crisis has been for so many Americans. In the roughly hour-long conversation — which at one point included someone holding back tears as she described the shame and embarrassment she felt for having carried so much debt for a degree from a for-profit college — people from different backgrounds and stages of life talked about how their student loans stunted their plans to buy a home, start a family, or even pursue certain careers. College was a path to a financial security, they had been told, but it seems to have led them nowhere.

David Ormsby, a member of the Debt Collective who now works at Ford Motor Company outside of Detroit, was a retail worker when he decided to go back to college so that he could earn a higher salary. Between working 40 to 60 hours a week, going to classes, and taking care of his family — including his father, who was suffering from early-onset Alzheimer’s disease — it took Ormsby nine years to finish his degree. “When I graduated, it was one of the proudest moments of my life,” he said.

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But two years later, Ormsby found that his life had not gotten any better. His salary had barely budged, and he was now responsible for paying back his loans. He described it as the equivalent of two extra car payments a month. “I also work part-time jobs to help me pay off my student loans,” he said, adding that, at 50 years old, he’ll probably be dead before he repays the balance. “The system here has me by the throat.”

Ormsby isn’t alone. Tara Sung, a physician assistant, was part of the first generation of her family to go to college. Her parents immigrated from South Korea, and she saw higher education as the surest way to be financially secure. And though she’s happy working in a women’s health clinic in New York, steep student loans veered her away from becoming a doctor. “I knew that if I did go to medical school, I would owe hundreds of thousands at the end,” she said, adding that she has already amassed over $100,000 in debt from both her Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees.

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There is no doubt that canceling student loans can dramatically improve people’s lives. Since the federal government froze repayment plans as part of the response to the coronavirus pandemic, Sung has been able to help her parents make ends meet. But once the repayments start, she said, that support will end. That’s why she’s put off making any long-term plans to buy a home or start a family: She is uncertain about what her finances might look like next year — or even by the end of this summer, when the student loan repayment freeze may come to an end.

Often lost in the arguments about canceling student debt are the stories of individuals, the faces behind the debt, and just how much student loan cancellation would do for them.

Consider Pamela Hunt, another member of the Debt Collective and a mother of eight. She was saddled with over $100,000 in student debt after attending one of the schools operated by the now-defunct, for-profit Corinthian Colleges Inc. Her debt made it impossible for her to get approved for a mortgage, and she needed to own a house so that she could make necessary renovations for her disabled son, Joshua, like installing ramps and wider doorways.

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When the federal government wiped out all student debt that was borrowed to attend a Corinthian college — nearly $6 billion — because of the for-profit institution’s false advertising and predatory practices, Hunt was finally approved for a mortgage. The only problem is that she still has tens of thousands of dollars remaining in debt for attending the University of Connecticut, so the loan she was approved for is not enough to get her the home she needs for her son.

“Student debt impacts every corner of your life,” Hunt said. “It keeps you from getting other things that you need to live, and in my case I couldn’t afford a home for my family.”

Biden often likes to talk about the “dignity of work.” Well, people are working. In many cases, they’re working multiple jobs to cover their student debt and they’re still waiting for the government to provide them with the dignity they were promised. If Biden wants to change that, then he should finally cancel their student debt.


Abdallah Fayyad is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at abdallah.fayyad@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @abdallah_fayyad.