Three days after the 2020 presidential race was called for Joe Biden, Democrats are already discussing the possibility of canceling or reducing student loan debt. Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer reiterated his support for a proposal to cancel up to $50,000 in student debt in a recent interview, urging Biden to make the issue a priority within his first 100 days as president.
Biden pledged to cancel $10,000 of student debt as part of a coronavirus relief effort during the campaign, and has advocated for cancelling debt for students at public colleges or Historically Black Colleges and Universities who earn up to $125,000. This decisive action feels warranted, given that our national student loan debt is currently over 1.5 trillion (for context, that’s almost twenty times more than the U.S. spends on education per year.)
As the student loan debt crisis continues to hamper the future plans and daily existences of millions of Americans, Vogue spoke to seven young people about how different levels of student debt relief would materially impact their lives, and what those lives might look like without the looming threat of unpaid loans hovering over them.
Alicia, 23: At this point, I’ll be paying off my student debt until I’m around 45, but I’ve accepted it. Everyone has student loan debt and the whole process is predatory, so why should I feel bad for paying the minimum? I just don’t see the point in scrambling to pay it off. At this rate, I’ll never be able to buy a house anyway, so what’s the point of good credit? If I didn’t have loans to pay off, I’d travel, I’d “stimulate the economy,” and I’d live in a nicer apartment. (Laughs.)
Cassie, 27: Any debt relief that would be meaningful to me would have to start at 30K and include private debt, with the higher interest rate, and without any income-based repayment option. Programs that only target federal debt leave too many people out, and miss that what is often so overwhelming about student debt is the interest rates combined with the monthly payment amounts. Private loan companies will never help you out with that without compiling interest. A major reduction in or elimination of my private student loans (and in my federal ones as well, if that were ever on the table) would mean relief from living paycheck to paycheck. That, in turn, would put all kinds of things on the table for both my partner and I, like having a child, pursuing long-term creative and professional goals, not freaking out every time the car needs a little work, and, most importantly, being able to share more wealth and resources in our communities.
Elly, 25: As it stands, even just $10,000 of debt relief would significantly change my life. If there were even more debt relief than that, say $50,000, it would feel totally achievable to pay down my debt completely in the next ten years. It would no longer be something hanging over my head. My consolidated loan payments have been on pause because of COVID-19, but when they’re not, I’m supposed to pay $700 a month, which is like having a second rent. As a freelancer, I spend every month worrying about how I’m going to make the bare minimum to pay for rent, groceries, utilities, and bills and therapy, with no money left over for anything else. I imagine that if student loan debt was relieved, I’d be able to actually put money towards other things—like vacations—at some point, and not worry so much about buying food or treating myself to things, which I rarely do now because I feel so guilty that that money is supposed to be going to loans. Like many people, having my loan debt relieved would free up so much space in my brain currently taken up by anxiety tunnel-vision, and would help me feel less irresponsible for spending my own money to take care of myself.
Vanya, 23: I’m a disabled trans person living in New York City, and I attended traditional college for only about 2 years, but I’m over $20K in debt. While that’s comparatively not a lot, I’ve been unemployed since March and it’s hard for me to hold a job because I have a neurological condition that is degenerative. I never got a degree because I had to drop out for my health, and if my debt was cancelled I wouldn’t have to worry about my credit being in the toilet and getting my wages garnished.
Alex, 33: I’m in my last year of residency, with $420K in medical school loans, and have been working on the frontline of the pandemic as an ER doctor. I’m doing a critical care fellowship after this, so basically I will be 35 before I start making a doctor’s salary and will be $500K in debt by that time, with no savings or assets. To me and thousands of other residents across the country, having some form of student debt relief would be incredibly meaningful. It would be a recognition of our sacrifice. A lot of residents have gotten sick working insane hours with sometimes scarce PPE and no hazard pay. It would also give so many thousands of doctors the freedom to work some place they WANT to work, whether it’s helping underserved populations or teaching, doing research, whatever, instead of chasing the highest-paying job to dig their way out of debt and try to save enough for retirement.
Emma, 26: I graduated with $50K in student loans. I’ve paid over $10K since I graduated three years ago, yet I still owe $49K. As a first-generation college student, neither myself nor my parents knew anything about student loans. I was 18 years old and had no idea how to navigate interest rates, etc., and had no idea what I was getting myself into. If I didn’t have this much student debt, I’d be able to afford dental work that I desperately need without taking out a small loan. I’d be able to put money into a savings account in case of an emergency. I’d be able to consider going to graduate school, something I always thought I’d someday achieve. I have a decent paying job, yet I’m burdened with student debt that I won’t be able to finish paying off until I’m in my late 40s.
Opheli, 24: I won’t be satisfied until all student loan debt is wiped out. I’m personally in nearly $180,000 of loan debt. My mother is the co-signer on most of that, but as she is still in about $30,000 of debt from her own education, neither of us are in a position to help each other. Even with scholarships I got for both undergrad and grad school, and being employed in my field, I’m living paycheck to paycheck, and can’t imagine being able to own a car, a house, or even a fucking dog. My mother is 54 years old and she’s never owned her own home. She went to a public school in-state as a single mother of two children. I went to a private school nearly 20 years later. The material conditions that led her to her college debt were only made more unequal by the time I started applying to college. I’ve constantly been ridiculed for choosing to attend a high-cost university instead of a cheaper state school — but I would have been in debt no matter where I went to school. My mother’s net income for the year I applied to school was around $15K. I guess $50K of loan forgiveness is a fair start, but I’m not going to be able to build a life with any sort of stability or roots until it’s all forgiven.