Student Debt Is Devastating American Families—Here’s How

Student Debt Is Devastating American Families—Here’s How

Student Debt Is Devastating American Families—Here’s How

Advocates collected thousands of responses from borrowers across the country, and their stories show just how debilitating student debt has become.


Student loan debt cancellation is within reach.

A national poll conducted in September 2020 by the Center for Responsible Lending found that nearly two-thirds of respondents supported some degree of student loan debt cancellation. A series of state-level polls found the same, with a majority of voters in Minnesota, Pennsylvania, and North Carolina supporting debt cancellation. At the federal level, over 75 members of Congress have signed on to a resolution calling for President Biden to use his executive power to cancel $50,000 in student loan debt across the board. And, in February, the Democratic Association of Attorneys General publicly endorsed the same.

It makes sense. For too many years, working- and middle-class Americans have been borrowing against their futures on the promise that a college education will provide financial stability and give their families the safety and security they need to thrive. We now know that student loan debt does just the opposite. Borrowers find themselves unable to save for retirement, invest in homeownership, build small businesses, or even give their own children a debt-free education.

Communities of color feel these effects disproportionately. After centuries of policies stripping Black families of wealth, Black college students are more likely to have to borrow for higher education—and to borrow a larger amount. Add discrimination in the labor market, and black borrowers take far longer to pay their debt down. In fact, two decades after starting school, Black borrowers on average still owe 95 percent of their student debt, while white borrowers on average have paid off 94 percent of their student debt.

President Biden promised immediate student debt cancellation. He also made racial justice a key part of his 2020 campaign. Biden must keep both of these promises by helping borrowers of color, and all borrowers, build the lives they and their families deserve.

For the past several weeks, the Center for Responsible Lending and Student Debt Crisis have partnered with national organizations like NAACP, NextGen America, Young Invincibles, and Generation Progress to offer a platform for student loan borrowers to talk about their experiences.

The #CancelStudentDebt Voices project has received responses from thousands of people answering the prompt: What would canceling student loan debt mean for you? How would your life look different?

Michelle, a Black woman from Ohio, told us she is a grandparent who is still $120,000 in debt despite facing retirement in the next three years. “Why am I still paying student loans?” she wrote. “I have paid them—it’s principal and interest I’m paying off. The actual loan I used [has] been paid three times over.” Michelle wrote that student debt cancellation would allow her to go into retirement feeling secure. “I can breathe and enjoy my golden years, since I worked for pennies all my life,” she wrote. “The depth of my pain could only be repaid by canceling my loans. I paid over and over the amount I actually used.”

Another borrower, Rachel, is a first-generation college graduate from Minnesota. She’s about $73,000 in debt, which she incurred in 2001. She told us that the debt makes her feel hopeless about her future. “I have never been able to have a savings, which has spiraled me into debt,” she wrote. “I also am now 38, and I fear due to financial burdens of student loans that [I am] close to being too late to start a family.” She says that student debt cancellation would allow her to start a family—she could afford day care. “And if [it is] too late to start a family now, I can at least travel, or have a dependable car, or substantial savings. I would also be able to not have to worry about working two jobs.”

For many, student loan debt prevents them from achieving life goals or stability for the future. “My student debt has long affected my credit score, impacting my ability to purchase a home,” wrote Karen, from South Carolina. “This has had far-reaching implications—paying more in rent than a mortgage, [being] unable to get credit for other things, unable to save for my son’s college education.” Debt cancellation, she said, would transform her life: She could pay for her son’s college and buy her first home. “I am 46 years old, and single. It would quite literally change my life.”

Rachel and Karen are not alone. “My entire life has been impacted by student debt,” wrote Eileen, from New York. “I have only seen the pain that debt caused to those around me especially when they’re trying their hardest to live a successful life.”

Joseph Hernandez, a parent from California, incurred about $50,000 in student loan debt. His goal, he wrote, was to “be a great parent who can provide a better life for my family.” After a decade of struggling to repay, he thinks about this goal often. “I’m in constant worry that I will not be able to afford to give my family the life that they deserve.”

There are so many communities affected by the student debt crisis. Charles, from Washington, is a veteran who says he supports canceling student debt because it would build a stronger economy and create more opportunities for young people. “I support free college and canceling student debt because that’s the way the country should be,” he wrote. “Especially for veterans.”

The burden of student loan debt exacerbates other challenges families face. Traci, from Tennessee, wrote to us saying that she is a proud mother whose child has special needs and other medical issues. She put aside her career to take care of him. “I was never able to get back,” she said. “Now I am struggling to make payments on a loan for an education I was never able to fully take advantage of.” She is fearful of the future. “I cannot save for retirement until this burden is lifted.”

These were only a few of the stories we heard—and it’s not over. In fact, we will be gathering stories for the next month, before we deliver them to President Biden, asking him to follow through with the relief he promised.

“Who doesn’t want their peers, communities, nation as a whole educated?” wrote Robert, a borrower from Arizona. “We shouldn’t just want better for each other but demand it! The idea of future generations not being crippled with debt upon finishing their education is something that keeps me going. All of the minorities, immigrants, working poor will have the same chance as anyone else in living the American Dream. It could…be something that is common instead of an exception. If we won’t invest in ourselves, who will?”

Want to add your story to the thousands of others demanding relief? Submit your testimony here.

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