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As the Biden Administration makes moves on the student loan debt crisis, Lacy M. Johnson writes about the extraordinary relief of debt forgiveness.
Late one night, as I was putting my son to bed, I got an email notification on my phone from FedLoan, the federal student debt servicer. The message told me that action was required on my part, that I had received a secure message through its platform. I tried to log in through the app, but I got an error message saying that the service was available only to users with debt balances. This was strange, because the last time I checked, I owed tens of thousands of dollars in student debt. I’ve been making regular monthly payments for 14 years; I expected to be paying on it for 20 more.
I don’t regret my education, or what I had to pay to get it. I grew up on a farm in a rural community and put myself through community college, and then through public state university by working at Walmart, selling steaks door-to-door, and for a few semesters, working as a stripper. No matter how many part-time jobs I pieced together, I never earned quite enough to cover the bills and my tuition, so I took out student loans.
My parents weren’t rich and never talked to me about money or amortization schedules or compounding interest—and I’m not sure their advice would have been very good even if they did. They believed, as I do, in education and that an education has value beyond the economic opportunity it might provide. For me, the value of education meant I could walk away from the kind of work I had to do with my body and toward the kind I could do with my mind.
I don’t regret my education, or what I had to pay to get it.
Now, I am a writer and professor, and in this job, I teach students to wield the tools of language to confront the most pressing issues in their lives. To train for this job, I attended six years of graduate school at public institutions, where I had tuition waivers and earned a small stipend—between $9,000 and $11,000 annually, the most money I had ever earned in my life at that time. It covered rent, barely, but it didn’t cover transportation or health insurance or mental health care or university fees or books or food. I borrowed money to live and to eat.
When I graduated with a Ph.D. in 2008, the interest on the portion of my student debt that was unsubsidized (an unsubsidized loan is one that accrues interest even while the borrower is in school) had already compounded, and the amount I owed was suddenly far higher than what I borrowed. I don’t know if you remember anything about the job market in 2008, but it was much easier and more common to suddenly lose a job at that time than to find one. Almost all the jobs in my field were canceled that year, and the next year, and the year after that.
I put my loans in deference for a while, making payments when I could. At the nadir of the recession, as the government bailed out the big banks whose risky investments and reckless pursuit of profits had caused the greatest economic disaster since the Great Depression, my loan balance ballooned to $83,000. I found a part-time job and chose the debt repayment plan that would allow me to make the smallest payment possible over the longest time, just in case my economic prospects never improved. For many years, they didn’t improve.
How can I describe the feeling of what it means to gamble on yourself and, at least in the short term, to lose? I learned to swallow my pride, to be flexible. In my part-time job, I mentored graduate students in the writing of their theses and dissertations, helped them understand how to prepare for and write their comprehensive exams. That part-time job became a full-time job, and in it, I began to see how the students who most needed the kind of support I offered were almost always unfunded, taking out loans to pay for their tuition. Like me, they were gambling on themselves and their futures. My job, I decided, was to help them win.
During this time, the company where my husband worked was doing round after round of layoffs. He had survived the layoffs so far, but we didn’t know how much longer he would. When he got a job offer in Houston, I agreed to quit my perfectly good job on the condition I could take a bit of time to finish the book I was writing. That book was The Other Side.
How can I describe the feeling of what it means to gamble on yourself and lose?
Due in large part to the success of that book, in 2016—eight years after earning my terminal degree—I did finally land a full-time, tenure-track job at a university, where I was (and am) well compensated, and that, in my early 40s, my career trajectory had finally brought me to a financial place where I was able to begin making extra payments on my student loans. I had been making regular monthly payments for about 14 years—totaling, I estimate, around $75,000—but I still owed $69,000, nearly the same amount I borrowed. Because of the repayment plan I was on, I didn’t qualify for student loan forgiveness, though at that time, very few people had. I was just starting to make progress on the balance when the pandemic hit, and my husband’s salary was, for a few months, cut by half. The government paused interest on all federal student loans, paused payments, and my progress paying down my debt paused as well.
According to the latest student loan debt statistics, more than 45 million Americans collectively owe more than $1.7 trillion in student loans, making student loan debt the second-highest consumer debt category—higher than credit card debt and auto loans, second only to mortgages. Currently, more than 11 percent of these borrowers are at least 90 days delinquent on their loans; a 2018 report from the Urban Institute estimates that by 2023, 40 percent of student loan borrowers could go into default, a crisis that some economists worry could trigger the next major economic crash.
In his campaign for president, Joe Biden addressed this looming crisis, arguing for the merits of low-interest refinancing and increased funding for vocational training, and eventually promising to cancel up to $10,000 in student debt per borrower. He hasn’t yet lived up to this promise, though he has extended the pandemic pause on student loan repayments a total of four times, and in October 2021, his administration temporarily expanded the student loan forgiveness program to include payments made on any repayment plan, to expand the kinds of payments that count toward the program, and to expand the kind of work that qualifies as public service. This is called the Temporary Expanded Public Service Loan Forgiveness program. More than 100,000 people have already qualified.
I applied for this expanded program in November 2021 and spent at least a week filling out the forms, tracking down the relevant people in HR departments at the various institutions where I have worked, explaining to these well-meaning and hardworking people that I hoped they could certify my former employment and why I hoped for this and what certification meant. Everyone I spoke to was willing to help. One person forgot to fill out the date on the form, which meant the certification was later rejected by the program, and I had to start the process again. I asked someone from my current employer to call a program administrator to verify that I still work at my current job, and they did, but the person they spoke to didn’t collect the right information, or perhaps didn’t have the right information, and the person from my job had to call them again.
I know that to anyone who has never held a debt they can’t seem to repay, none of this sounds particularly daunting or difficult or terrible, but to me, it felt like clinging to the edge of a cliff that was slowly giving way. The program is currently temporary—it is set to expire October—and the money in the fund is limited; there isn’t enough for everyone. It felt like I was competing against everyone I’ve spent my entire career rooting for, serving, working to protect.
There is no shame in debt.
But even the distant promise of debt forgiveness was a chance to be free of a scam I had bought into—a sentence that I had more than served but that somehow wasn’t going away. When students came into my office asking about graduate school, I always advised them: Whatever you do, do not take out student loans. Not because your education isn’t worth it—it is—but because it is almost impossible to repay.
After about a month, I heard from the forgiveness program: In their initial evaluation of my case, they estimated I had made more than 100 payments that would qualify me for debt forgiveness, but there were 36 more payments that “required further investigation.” They couldn’t give me a timeline for when their investigation would be completed, nor what exactly they would be investigating. I waited and kept making regular payments—what else was there to do—but I wasn’t particularly hopeful.
Even though I am a now college professor, I firmly believe that higher education isn’t the only path to a rewarding and successful career—in addition to being a farmer, my grandfather was a tractor mechanic and loved his work. He never set foot in a college classroom and was one of the smartest people I’ve ever known. The world needs tractor mechanics like my grandfather and truck drivers like my sister, as well as carpenters and plumbers. But the world also needs teachers and accountants, journalists, and doctors and dentists. Training for these professions begins with college degrees and sometimes continues in advanced degrees, and there is no shame in needing to borrow money to afford the cost of pursuing them. There is certainly no shame in having ambitions for your future beyond your current means.
There is no shame in debt, though what is shameful is the legal usury of the student loan system, where borrowers pay and pay, double or triple or quadruple what they have borrowed, and yet the principle stays the same. The Biden administration has the authority to cancel all of the nation’s outstanding student debt, which would return billions of dollars back to the U.S. economy, would help narrow the widening racial wealth gap, and, most importantly, would liberate tens of millions of Americans from a lifetime of economic indenture.
When I got that notification from FedLoan the other night and was finally able to log on to the student loan system, I found a letter in my secure inbox saying that I had qualified for the Temporary Expanded Forgiveness program and that the entire balance of my student loans—more than $67,000—had been, just like that, erased. I took a screenshot of my balance: $0. I could hardly believe it. After more than 20 years of being in debt, I never have to make another student loan payment again. It feels like an enormous weight has been lifted, a burden I’ve been carrying around for half my life. There’s nothing special about me that makes me more deserving of this than others; if anything, others deserve it more. My case is not remarkable or unique or different, and though this debt forgiveness changes my life, it doesn’t change the economy. It’s a drop in a vast ocean of debt in which millions are still drowning. If they have the power to save me, they have the power to save everyone.
Make no mistake: I feel deeply and profoundly grateful, liberated even. But more than gratitude, what I feel is certainty—that education is a human right, and no one should have to mortgage their future to pay for it.