On Tuesday, a formal debate about student debt cancellation took place inside the Supreme Court. The scene outside was loud and lively.
The People’s Rally for Student Debt Cancellation was co-hosted jointly by the NAACP and Student Borrower Protection Center. Young Invincibles, along with over 20 other organizations, asked the court to approve President Joe Biden’s student debt cancellation plan that could cost as much as $20,000 The rally was clear: Student debt is a civil rights violation, and the Supreme Court has an obligation to cancel it.
Cedric Lawson was the field director for the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights. He stood in front of a backdrop that read “Student Debt Cancellation Is Legal.”
“Education,” Lawson called. The crowd replied, “IS A RIGHT.”
Lawson continued, “College access.” The crowd repeated, “IS A RIGHT”,
Over 100 people marched to Washington, D.C. from all over the country. There were musicians, 30 speakers, and almost four hours of personal stories about how student debt impacts the lives of borrowers. Progressive lawmakers including Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt.; Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass. ; and Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.); also took to the stage facing the court’s marble steps.
Maddy Clifford is the Debt Collective’s deputy press secretary. She said that her $120,000 student loan debt feels now like a badge to show solidarity. She said that if one person owes money to the bank, it’s their problem. “But when a million people owe to the bank, that’s their problem .”
Speakers encouraged protesters, many of whom are among the 45 million, to shout loud enough to be heard by the justices. This is what they might have heard if they had been listening.
Borrowers’ stories shed light on student debt crisis
Many borrowers felt shameful and embarrassed at not being able to pay off their student loans. They claim they were made to feel guilty by a system that put them at risk and allowed them to believe it was their fault.
Shanna Hayes, a Washington, D.C., resident, said that she was a first generation college student and had accumulated more than $150,000 in student loans. Her first job as a teacher in a public school paid $29,000 per year. She says that she went from feeling joyous and proud to feeling like I couldn’t afford a place for myself.
She reached out to her student loan servicer in order to find the best way to manage her student loans. The plan she chose had her paying $0 per month, but added interest. This disqualified her for Public Service Loan Forgiveness which is a federal program that forgives student debt for borrowers who have worked in teaching or other public service jobs for at least a decade.
Ashley Green, a St. Petersburg resident, claims she borrowed $78,000 in federal student loans, which ballooned to $112,000 over the last decade. She says that she has paid back $58,000 so her owes about the same amount as what she borrowed.
Green has worked in service and nonprofit work her entire career. She says that people are told to get an education in order to succeed in life. However, her debt from her education caused her to struggle to sustain herself.
It took me some time to realize that I wasn’t the only one. She says that I believed I was wrong to have taken out loans and that I was wrong to not be able to repay them. This is actually a problem with the structure of our higher education system .”
Systemic racism is blamed for placing Black and brown borrowers at greater risk
Rep. Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.) used her speech as a way to link student debt with other historical actions that “denied [Black Americans] ability to build generational wealth,” such as redlining and refusal of the GI Bill. She said that Black Americans “borrow and default more often because of this history.”
Many rally speakers highlighted the fact that more than 80% of Black students have student loans to pay for college. Federal data indicates that nearly half of Black borrowers defaulted upon their loans.
Those who have student debt can limit their opportunities. Green states, “I believed a few loans there and there would be something that I could repay over time.” “They have shaped everything in the past decade — where I’ve lived and what I was able to pursue .”
A protester stood in front of the crowd holding a sign reading, “72% Latinos take out Student Loans.” This assertion was supported by the Student Borrower Protection Center.
She said, “This is a story that plays in every Latino household.” It seems to continue to the next generation. The Education Data Initiative, an independent group of researchers who analyze federal higher-education data, found that Latino borrowers were more likely than any other groups to delay getting married and have children due to student debt.
She says the rally is about “how student loan debt affects minorities.”
Hayes requests that lawmakers consider student loan applicants. She feels there is a disconnect between the people in power and those in debt. She says, “The people making these decisions are those who the system has worked well for.”
Warnings to future borrower
Student loan borrowers are waiting for a solution, but they also have words of caution for anyone trying to get after them.
Hayes states, “Ask more questions that I did.”
She advises high school students that they seek out local nonprofits for help if they are unable to find someone to help with college funding.
Green advises college students to be careful about which loans they take out. Green says, “If there is an alternative, I don’t mean any other option — do not take out loans.” “If I could do it over again, I would likely go to community college first.”
Standing in the crowd, one could hear the echo from the chants bounce off of the marble facade of the Supreme Court.
Lawson asked, “Whose court?” The crowd responded, “OUR COURT.”
They wait to hear if they have succeeded.