At 7 a.m. one Wednesday morning late last month, Representative Ayanna Pressley was at home in Hyde Park when her phone rang: It was the White House. Ron Klain, President Biden’s chief of staff, was on the line. Pressley knew Biden was set to release his long-awaited student debt relief plan a few hours later, and she made one more pitch: “Please make this process as efficient and equitable and streamlined as possible.”
The night before, Senator Elizabeth Warren had made much the same case to Biden himself, continuing a conversation they had on board Air Force One during a trip to Massachusetts in July. It was their closing arguments for a case that had been a decade in the making.
That day, Biden announced an executive order that will wipe out $10,000 in student debt for over 43 million Americans, with many who received Pell Grants receiving an additional $10,000 of relief. The announcement has elated millions and enraged countless others. And it likely wouldn’t have happened without two of Massachusetts’ most high-profile politicians paving the way.
“Ayanna and I wanted more,” Warren admitted later, “but we stayed after it.”
“We just didn’t stop lobbying,” Pressley said.
It was a signature moment for Warren and Pressley, who both have long sought financial fairness for working families. It was also a major win for many of their constituents. Massachusetts residents have more college degrees per capita than any state in the country, and over $31 billion in student debt. Over 900,000 people here owe money on federal student loans. For Warren and Pressley, canceling student debt is akin to signing a farm bill for Nebraska. But getting there was no easy road.
Warren had spent decades as a law professor focused on how families go bankrupt; when she got to the Senate, her first bill targeted student loan interest rates. Pressley’s political career has centered on the vast economic inequalities that span her Boston-centric district.
They’d seen it play out in their personal lives too. Warren, 73, paid just $50 a semester to attend the University of Houston, waiting tables to cover her expenses. That started her toward law school, and eventually the Harvard faculty and the Senate.
“Education ought to be about opening doors, and for me it was,” she said. “But the opportunities I got don’t exist today.”
The 48-year-old Pressley was at Boston University when her mother was diagnosed with leukemia. She went home to help, but ended up defaulting on her loans. Like 40 percent of people who borrow money for college, she wound up with debt but no degree, which in turn impacted her credit and made it harder to rent an apartment.
“Those are the stats, but also my lived experience,” Pressley said. “But I’m no anomaly, this is systemic.”
So when the two met a decade ago, student debt quickly came up.
“Not just the rising cost of college but the rising debt loads,” which have since almost doubled, Warren notes. “Ayanna and I talked about it in the context of opportunity.”
Their conversations evolved into one of the signature promises of Warren’s 2020 presidential run: an executive order to wipe out $50,000 in student debt for middle-class borrowers. Pressley co-chaired Warren’s campaign, and as they worked the ropeline, they heard time and again the shame people felt about their student debt, and how relief would be a gamechanger.
Other candidates offered their own proposals (Senator Bernie Sanders wanted to wipe out student debt entirely), and by April 2020, after Warren had dropped out of the race, Biden announced a plan to cancel at least $10,000 for eligible borrowers. Student debt relief had gone from pie in the sky to part of the Democratic platform.
But it was still a theory, one ridiculed by the right as a handout for wealthy college grads. Warren and Pressley needed to change the narrative. Then came COVID.
In March of 2020, amid the pandemic-fueled economic crisis, President Trump dropped the interest rate on federal student loans to 0 percent, allowing borrowers to pause payments without penalty. Suddenly, millions of Americans found themselves without that monthly stress. It was proof that debt relief could have real-world consequences. In short, a gamechanger.
While walking the dog or going to the grocery store, the two lawmakers heard firsthand what that meant. One woman — “obviously nine months pregnant” — stopped Warren on the street near her home in Cambridge, she said, and “talked about student loan debt in terms of being able to save up for a down payment for a house.” Pressley heard stories of people who could finally afford safe housing or feel secure enough to have children at all. Warren and Pressley texted daily about what people told them.
“And we carried those stories with us in every press conference, every roundtable,” Pressley said.
They made sure to tell other politicians too, including Senate majority leader Chuck Schumer.
Warren recalled telling him, in the fall of 2020, about an elderly woman whose Social Security check was garnished to pay her loans. A few days later, he found Warren on the Senate floor to relay a story of his own from a constituent wrestling with student debt. They co-led a resolution that September.
The November election was chaos, but when it became clear Biden had won, debt relief no longer seemed theoretical. By December, Schumer made his first big push alongside Warren and Pressley to advocate for relief.
Biden would prove to be a tougher sell.
When the new president took office in January 2021, student debt relief was not a priority. In February, he rejected the $50,000 figure that Warren, Pressley, and Schumer had touted, telling a CNN town hall “I will not make that happen.” He was concerned the policy seemed unfair to those who had paid off their loans without help and might jolt an already-fragile economy.
But pushing it through a sharply-divided Congress, where Republicans broadly opposed the idea and even some Democrats were skeptical of giveaways to college grads, seemed unlikely. Persuading Biden seemed their best bet.
So for the next 18 months, Warren, Pressley, Schumer, and their progressive allies, including Representative Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, would take White House feedback as marching orders to do more.
“It was like, interesting ... challenge accepted,” said Sarah Groh, Pressley’s chief of staff. When Biden expressed concern that labor didn’t seem engaged on the issue, Warren worked with Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, to rally union support.
“There was this classist frame that if you were a tradesman or woman you don’t have student loan debt,” said Pressley.
This past May, the AFL-CIO threw its support behind the issue, and in June, it hosted a town hall with support from eight of the top labor leaders in its office across the street from the White House. Weingarten credits Warren and Pressley for building that coalition. The message was clear.
“I feel very privileged and honored that I’ve gotten to be in sorority with these two amazing representatives,” she said. “I feel like I’m an honorary Bostonian.”
Pressley, meanwhile, worked to rally the Congressional Black Caucus around the idea that student debt relief was a racial justice issue. Eighty-six percent of Black students are borrowers, and they are five times more likely than white borrowers to default on their loans. A key win came in February of last year, when Representative Jim Clyburn — a close Biden ally — signed on. The NAACP helped turn up the heat; its activists carried signs that read “cancel student debt” on their annual trek across Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala., this past March.
“I remember thinking, wow, this, this is a moment right there,” Pressley recalled. Ultimately, in May, the Congressional Black Caucus backed debt relief.
Time and again, stories from Massachusetts would make their way back to the White House.
Warren cited a roundtable discussion with the Black Economic Council of Massachusetts that underscored how debt relief could aid young entrepreneurs of color, improving their credit and making it easier to grow a business, said council president Nicole Obi. A visit to the Fuller Village senior living center in Milton was proof that debt was a multigenerational problem. “I’m afraid I’m going to die still paying these loans,” Pressley recalled one resident telling her.
Gradually, Biden grew more receptive, and Pressley and Warren’s coalition widened to include Georgia Senator Raphael Warnock. They reminded the president that the same executive powers being used to pause student loan payments could be used to cancel student debt. They offered Biden data showing that debt relief would affect the lowest income borrowers most and proposed extra help for Pell Grant recipients.
By summer, lobbying was in full swing. In June, Pressley flew with Jill Biden to a veteran’s event in Charlestown. On the way, she told her how teachers had confided in Weingarten “that they even contemplated suicide” over their debt burden. The story, Pressley said, moved the first lady, herself a longtime community college teacher.
In July, Warren had her own in-flight encounter on Air Force One with President Biden. En route to a wind farm staging site in Somerset, she reminded him “this is about who we are as a nation” and shared stories that “underscored how desperately hardworking people need some relief.”
Biden hasn’t said exactly what swayed him. A source familiar with the White House’s thinking said in making his decision, the president “carefully considered all arguments together with the Department of Education, and in the end they made their decision to keep his campaign promise to the American people.”
But Pressley hung up the phone that morning last month confident she and Warren had finally been heard.
“It took me a couple of days to really process and metabolize exactly what happened,” she said. “It’s very rare that you can see the tangible results of policymaking in real time.”
Now, she and Warren will play a role in the oversight and implementation of the relief. They hope this prompts a bigger conversation about how how to manage the cost of higher education and offers proof that radical ideas are only radical until they’re taken seriously.
“Over and over, Ayanna and I both would hear, ‘This was never going to happen. You’re never going to get it,’” said Warren. “My response was always, you don’t get what you don’t fight for.”
Janelle Nanos can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @janellenanos.