What borrowers think of Biden’s student-loan forgiveness plan

Student-loan borrowers have desperately awaited President Biden’s decision on debt cancellation since he took office. As days turned into months and months turned into more than a year of deliberations, some grew anxious or disillusioned. Others remained relentless in pressuring Biden to make good on a campaign promise.

Last week, he delivered a plan forgiving up to $20,000 of federal student debt held by Pell Grant recipients and up to $10,000 for other eligible borrowers. Only people earning under $125,000 a year — or less than $250,000 a year for couples — qualify. Because Pell Grants are given to lower- and middle-income students, the plan is designed to provide the greatest relief to people with the fewest financial resources.

The plan is not without its critics. People who never went to college, who never borrowed or who paid off their loans have called the policy unfair. Others, sometimes in those same groups, have defended it as a social good.

We wanted to know what borrowers — current and former — think about Biden’s cancellation policy.

Calculate how much of your student loan debt can be forgiven

Keijana George, 18

Debt amount: $10,000

A rising sophomore at the University of Georgia, Keijana George, 18, has just about $10,000 in federal student loans. She still has two more years of college and designs on law school, which probably means more borrowing. Still, George is happy to have a clean slate, at least for now.

“I’m feeling pretty good,” said George, who is studying international affairs. “This is a great example of what we can accomplish when we hold our leaders accountable. But we have to push for more. Ten thousand is a lot of money, but college costs a whole lot more.”

Money is at the heart of nearly every decision George has made since applying to colleges. She traded in her dream school, Spelman College, a private historically Black institution where she was accepted with some financial aid, for much cheaper in-state tuition at UGA, where she could also take advantage of Georgia’s HOPE scholarship. Even if loan cancellation were available when she applied, George said, she would have chosen the same path.

“I have an older sister, a younger sister, and we’re three years apart. That’s a lot of tuition,” George said, noting that even $20,000 in forgiveness would not have wiped out the debt she would have acquired at Spelman. “Still, I have the privilege of being at an institution that helped a lot with paying for school. Not everyone has that. They need more help. We have to fight for more.”

Zach Hyatt, 42

Debt amount: $31,000

News of Biden’s executive order delighted Zach Hyatt, an electrical department manager at a Cleveland Clinic center in Ohio. After years of struggling to repay his $31,000 in student loans, the father of two is eligible for $20,000 in relief as a former Pell Grant recipient.

“It’s great news,” Hyatt said. “This will cut my balance down to an amount where you can see the light at the end of the tunnel. Any working-class person who can get a $20,000 credit for any aspect of their life — it’s a big deal.”

Who qualifies for Biden’s plan to cancel $10,000 in student debt?

Hyatt’s first daughter was born during his sophomore year at the University of Saint Francis in Fort Wayne, Ind. He almost graduated with a business degree, but one semester shy of crossing the stage, Hyatt dropped out. Scholarships didn’t cover enough of the cost, his parents couldn’t help, and Hyatt didn’t want to borrow more money.

“I needed to be a dad and support my daughter, so I ended up working full-time,” he said.

Staying on top of his loan payments was difficult with low-wage jobs, rent, child support and attorneys’ fees as Hyatt fought for custody of his daughter. Things picked up after Hyatt completed an apprenticeship to become an electrician through the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers. But after going through a divorce, he defaulted on his student debt. Hyatt has since brought the loans back into good standing and is trying to pay them off.

Leandra Westbrook, 25

Debt amount: $60,000

With $60,000 in education loans, Leandra Westbrook, a Pell Grant recipient, could see her balance drop by $20,000 under Biden’s plan. Yet Westbrook, 25, isn’t sure she’ll seek the benefit.

“I’m very against this policy,” she said. “It would be a huge relief, and I understand why people would apply. But I made a commitment to pay those loans back when I agreed to take them out. It’s no one else’s responsibility.”

Since graduating Kent State University in 2019, Westbrook has aggressively paid down the $80,000 in federal loans she and her parents took out for her education. She moved back home to save money, had an array of side hustles, sold items online and stuck to a strict budget.

“I’m living within my means, making sacrifices and cutting costs where I can, because this is my obligation,” said Westbrook, a fundraising specialist for Majority Strategies, a Republican political advertising firm. “We don’t need people to be so dependent on federal assistance.”

In hindsight, Westbrook said she regrets going to college and believes there is an overreliance on using degrees as a measure of ability. If anything, she said, the government should abolish the federal lending program, which she believes incentivizes colleges to keep prices artificially high. Perhaps then, colleges will be forced to lower their prices.

Who has student loan debt in America?

Levar Stoney, 41

Debt amount: $25,000

It took 15 years for Levar Stoney, 41, to repay the $25,000 in education loans he needed to attend James Madison University. When he graduated with a bachelor’s in public administration and political science, Stoney’s first job in politics paid about as much as he owed.

Still, he never missed a payment on his student debt or the Parent Plus loan his father took out on his behalf. Stoney lived a spartan life, even as he rose in politics, becoming Virginia’s secretary of the commonwealth and later Richmond’s youngest mayor. He kept his expenses at a minimum, he said. Years of hard work led to higher pay that helped whittle down the balance. And by 2019, he sent in his last payment.

Stoney was so elated that he took to Instagram to share his journey to becoming free of his student loans. And when he learned of Biden’s plan, a plan that would in no way benefit him, Stoney said he was “excited” for the recipients.

“I know how it feels to be burdened with college debt, and I believe that college should open up pathways to economic success,” Stoney said. “What’s unfair is to be burdened with debt for 10, sometimes 20 years, being unable to buy a house, build generational wealth.”

How President Biden decided to go big on student loan forgiveness

Student loans, Pell grants and scholarships put higher education within reach for Stoney, he said. The son of a custodian, Stoney said there was no doubt he could get into college, but paying for it was another thing.

“My problem was always: How can I remain in school and finish the job? Those loans, those programs allowed me to finish the job,” he said.

Ava Stevens, 61

Debt amount: $200,000

As happy as Ava Stevens is for the millions of people who will benefit from the cancellation plan, she can’t help but think that for her it amounts to “a drop in the ocean.”

“While I think $10,000 is significant, it’s certainly not enough,” Stevens said. “When I look at the way our government bails out industries — they have lobbying power, borrowers don’t.”

With an MBA and a master’s degree in education, Stevens has amassed $200,000 in debt. Half of that, she explained, is the interest that has accrued on her student loans. Stevens deferred her payments to cover household expenses and medical bills that mounted as her husband battled, and eventually succumbed to, cancer.

Within two years of his death, Stevens lost her job in student financial services at Portland State University because of budget cuts. That led to low-wage adjunct teaching positions. Stevens said she was never able to make consistent payments.

“I’m not asking for a walk on my student loans because I certainly benefited from the education, but this interest is crazy,” Stevens said. “The interest rate on my car loan is a fraction of the rate on my student loans. I will never be able to retire.”