My road to a college education began on the bathroom floor of a hotel room.
Thrust into homelessness, my six younger siblings, parents, and I lived in hotels and shelters to survive. It was from the bathroom floor of our room that I completed English essays, studied for high school exams, and drafted my college personal statement. There, I took refuge from the constant chorus of hallway chatter and family arguments that blanketed our hotel room, usually when our food stamp balance ran low or when our rental applications were rejected.
Faced with the threat that my family would lack the money for food, would need to move hotels, or would never find housing, I applied to the University of Massachusetts Amherst. In a hotel where homeless families spent years struggling to find housing and children grew up estranged from their communities, my choice to apply to college was not a choice at all. It was my only chance to interrupt the cycle of poverty. This fight for a new beginning, however, came at a cost. Graduating with a bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree, I incurred $40,000 in student debt.
Faced with a similar impossible decision and lured by the promise of a brighter future, millions of Americans have done the same. As of 2022, the student loan debt crisis has reached about $1.75 trillion and affects 43 million borrowers. It prevents many student loan borrowers from accessing basic necessities, paying their bills, and preparing for the future, hindering their ability to buy a home, have children, or invest in a retirement account. This debt is disproportionately held by low-income and Black borrowers, limiting social mobility and worsening the racial wealth gap.
On Wednesday, the Biden administration answered the pleas of borrowers and released a transformative plan to begin to address the student loan debt crisis. Under this policy, the administration will forgive up to $10,000 in student debt — and up to $20,000 for Pell Grant recipients — for individuals who earn less than $125,000 annually. Biden also extended the student loan payment pause through the end of this year and proposed a new repayment plan for undergraduate loans that limits monthly repayment to 5 percent of a borrower’s discretionary income, down from 10 percent, and covers the borrowers unpaid monthly interest.
This plan will change lives. It cancels the entire student debt balance of approximately 20 million borrowers. Because of the focus on providing additional relief for Pell-eligible students, who are from families that make less than $60,000 per year, it will also predominately ease the burden on low-income Americans who are forced to take out the most student debt — contrary to the claims made by Republican politicians that the policy benefits wealthy borrowers. Similarly, it will help to reduce the racial-wealth gap because Black students qualify for federal Pell Grants at a higher percentage than white students and thus are more likely to receive aid under the Pell approach to student debt cancellation. Finally, the proposed income-based repayment plan will help borrowers with undergraduate debt, reducing their monthly payments and preventing their debt from increasing due to interest.
While this plan provides some student debt cancellation for millions of Americans, it does not go far enough in addressing the scale of the student debt crisis. As the president of the NAACP notes, the cancellation schema does not sufficiently address the racial-wealth gap. Canceling $10,000 or $20,000 in student debt still leaves millions of Black borrowers with debt to endure because Black Americans hold an average of $53,000 in student debt four years after graduation, nearly double that of their white counterparts. Furthermore, the plan does not eliminate the debt of the average borrower, who holds nearly $37,000 in student debt. Because the current plan is means-tested and does not propose full debt cancellation, it leaves 23 million Americans to face the continuing burdens of a monthly student debt payment. The amount canceled is a drop in the bucket for the 25 percent of borrowers, approximately 10 million people, who hold more than $50,000 in student debt.
Beyond debt cancellation, the proposed income-based repayment plan that covers accrued interest and prevents a growing debt balance does not cover federal loans taken out to cover graduate or professional school. These federal loans have high interest rates and force borrowers to take on substantial debt to attend these educational programs. Excluding these borrowers from the new plan leaves many public-interest lawyers, social workers, and teachers facing a growing debt burden under the existing income-based repayment plan.
The Biden administration’s plan does not alter the commodification of education: It does not eliminate student debt entirely and Congress has not addressed the systemic defunding of public higher education or the runaway costs of tuition. As a law student, I expect to graduate with $160,000 in student debt. While $20,000 does not fundamentally change my debt burden, this plan will provide substantial relief to millions of people. However, this should not be the end but the start.
To build upon this major step, Biden should cancel all federally held student debt and advocate for a reinvestment in public higher education. At minimum, he should allow graduate loans to qualify under the proposed program. In taking these steps, Biden will fulfill the promise offered by higher education and ensure that college-bound children are not punished for daring to dream of a new beginning.
Timothy Scalona is a second-year law student at Suffolk University Law School.