Even before the current economic crisis, I didn't have much hope of paying off my student debt before I die. My grandmother is 74 and still has student loans, and so does my 53-year-old mother. They carry so much shame with their debt because they’ve been told a lie that their debt is their fault instead of a trap built into the higher education system in this country.
While this is Amira’s story, it’s familiar to all three of us. We are recent graduates watching our friends lose jobs, struggle to pay rent, and trying to keep up with crushing student loans in the worst economy since the Great Depression while the federal government turns its back on us.
Today’s graduates were facing a devastating student debt crisis even before the COVID-19 pandemic hit. Exorbitant tuition forces many students to drop out of school before getting a degree, while corporate university boards line their pockets. Black and Brown families continue to be robbed of wealth, suffocating yet another generation. Before the pandemic hit, the average recent graduate would be paying off loans for 20 years even if they made payments regularly. We need full student debt cancellation to prevent economic devastation for our generation.
While payments have been paused through the end of the year, lawmakers are merely postponing the student debt cliff. And despite the economic hardship that millions are facing right now, private loans are not on pause, so Amira still had a $600 loan payment due this month. Even though the CARES Act prohibits loan providers from penalizing students for the next few months, students are being forced to take financial institutions to court when they continue to illegally tarnish credit reports. On top of that, the Department of Education is garnishing wages from people behind on their student loans.
The economic devastation from this crisis will follow our generation for our entire lives. Even if graduating students are able to find a job when the economy starts to recover, graduating during a recession depresses our earnings for about a decade or more.
Crises like the one we’re experiencing now hit the communities who are already locked out the hardest. Four years after graduation, Black graduates have twice as much student debt as White graduates. The legacies of slavery and Indigenous genocide, our rigged economy and policies like school segregation and redlining have robbed Black, Brown, Indigenous and poor people for generations, forcing them to take out more loans in order to access the same educational opportunities.
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If we’re ever going to recover from this crisis, we need a policy response that matches the scale of the crisis—and we’re not getting it. Congress failed to include substantial relief for students in any of its COVID-19 response bills. The CARES Act arbitrarily excluded young people aged 17-24 from the one-time $1,200 stimulus who are claimed as dependents, so most college students got nothing. Undocumented people and young people in mixed-status families were robbed of their whole family’s relief. And many recent graduates who can’t find jobs in this crisis aren’t eligible for unemployment insurance.
Progressives fought to include $30,000 of student debt cancellation for every student borrower in the US in the CARES Act—completely wiping out student debt for the typical graduate—but then in negotiations with the Senate, relief was slashed for millions. At the end of the day, neither the CARES Act nor the Families First Act has seriously addressed the student debt crisis.
Subsequent COVID-19 relief legislation has gotten worse for people saddled with student debt. House Democrats proposed $10,000 in student debt cancellation for federal and private loans in the first version of their latest proposal, the Heroes Act, but then cut out nearly half of borrowers at the last moment. The updated Heroes Act 2.0 doesn’t cancel any federal loans, only providing up to $10,000 of cancellation for private loan borrowers in extreme economic distress. And the HEALS Act, the bill proposed by Senate Republicans, won’t even extend the payment suspension from CARES, much less cancel any debt.
Full student debt cancellation isn’t just critical relief for students and recent graduates—it would give the economy a $1 trillion boost over ten years and create millions of jobs, providing opportunity across generations. The only solution that matches the scale of the crisis is full student debt cancellation, without leaving anyone behind.
Trump has refused to seriously negotiate with Congress and declared he won’t sign relief until after the election. Lawmakers have a choice: will they spend billions of taxpayer dollars on some of the wealthiest corporations, or will they provide relief and hope for a generation terrified for our future? Now more than ever, young people need relief and Congress is leaving us out yet again. Our generation can’t wait—we couldn’t afford our student debt payments before, and we certainly can’t now.