As student debt in America reaches a record-breaking $1.8 trillion among 45 million federal borrowers, the student debt cancellation movement is finally close to a win. For a decade, Natalia Abrams and Cody Hounanian at the Student Debt Crisis Center have been working to provide relief to the one in five Americans caught in the student debt crisis—through outreach, surveys, town hall meetings, and their State of Student Debt Summit.
While writing for StudentNation, the Student Debt Crisis Center has been working to uplift stories of everyday Americans who are burdened with student loan debt and provide updates on the fight to end student debt. With President Biden close to a decision on cancellation, it’s time to take a look back at the 10 years of advocacy work from the SDCC that helped bring us to this pivotal moment. StudentNation recently interviewed Natalia and Cody to learn more about their journey and find out what’s to come.
Unfortunately, with the payment pause set to expire on August 31, we are hearing from borrowers who are stressed out, confused, and uncertain about the future. That is why we feel that the president must come out immediately and announce a plan to not only extend the payment pause but to also deliver on his promise to provide meaningful, permanent student debt cancellation. Another piecemeal approach from one crisis to the next is not policy, and the transformative benefits of student debt relief have been undermined by these 11th-hour decisions.
We are still optimistic that the is going to take action. So—when he does—we will take a moment to celebrate and thank our supporters for fighting with us for nearly a decade. Then, the work continues.
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SN: So far, President Biden has extended the federal payment pause four different times. What benefits would wide-scale debt relief have on those burdened by student loan payments, rather than simply extending it for a few months longer?
SDCC: Imagine millions of Americans saving hundreds of dollars each month because their student loans are erased—they would be financially free to purchase homes, support their families, start small businesses, save for retirement, and so much more. For many, it would be the first time they were able to breathe and relieve the stress caused by the past two years of deep uncertainty.
Debt cancellation is also about realizing a better, more fair, and more equitable society. It would be a once-in-a-generation opportunity to level the playing field for Black and brown borrowers. Today, Black women hold more student debt than any other group, and Black borrowers often owe more debt after a decade than when they started their education. It is a vicious cycle that feeds the racial wealth gap; canceling student debt is one of the most powerful tools available to President Biden to address racial inequity issues.
Wide-scale relief is also good for the economy. It would increase the GDP by billions of dollars and add jobs. It helps fix our broken higher education system and fulfills the broken promise of higher education. Americans will once again trust that education is a pathway to the American Dream, not a financial nightmare.
SN: The Biden administration has announced changes to our “broken” loan system. Why is the current approach to managing student debt insufficient?
SDCC: Higher education should have never depended on a convoluted financing system where the government—and student loan companies—get paid while American families are left holding the bag. Borrowers are educated, ambitious, and responsible individuals, and yet millions of them have been unable to navigate this messy, byzantine system. That should say a lot about how bad it has become.
The result of these failures is what University of Iowa sociologist Louise Seamster calls “predatory inclusion.” Instead of higher education benefiting those who needed it most, the costs associated with student debt left borrowers exploited, worse off financially, and completely disillusioned.
SN: In the past few years, we’ve seen the conversation around student debt cancellation shift as politicians take it more seriously. How has the fight for the elimination of student debt changed over the past decade?
SDCC: Natalia and the Student Debt Crisis Center’s story begins at the University of California–Los Angeles in the 2000s, where tuition hikes exposed the broken system that left students saddled with astronomical debt. After she graduated in 2009, the UC system raised tuition by 32 percent from one semester to the next. She saw friends and peers drop out due to the heavier burden of tuition.
Later, SDCC was a founding member of the Higher Ed, Not Debt coalition that was started by the Center for American Progress in 2013. That coalition did a phenomenal job of convincing the public that student debt is a crisis. At the time, we were joined by only a handful of groups who were fighting to prevent interest rates from increasing, holding predatory for-profit colleges accountable, and working to call attention to industry abuses. We had even fewer allies in Congress. Senator Elizabeth Warren stands out as one of the early champions.
While that work looks different from today’s movement to cancel student debt, the coalition laid the groundwork for much of what we are doing today. Collaboration with diverse groups is essential to our success. Our recent student debt initiative has grown to over 530 civil rights, veteran, student, and consumer rights groups.
Through this collaborative work, we’ve made huge strides. We are proud that today, more than 80 lawmakers, the Senate majority leader, and even the president are discussing how, not if, to cancel student debt.
SN: How does the Student Debt Crisis Center fit within the organizing landscape? What makes the organization unique?
SDCC: SDCC is only as strong as our supporters. It is our mission to echo the voices of borrowers to impact public policy and we always put their voices front and center. That is why over the past decade we have collected over 100,000 student debt stories from people impacted by this crisis. With 2 million supporters that are borrowers and allies, we have learned a lot speaking with them. They share their pitfalls, their frustrations, and what keeps them hopeful. Their voices guide our work. They earn us a seat at the table with policy-makers, and they are our most powerful tool.
SN: Can you talk more about how you organize in a coalition with other advocacy groups?
SDCC: From our inception, we have worked collaboratively with partners to amplify our collective voices. Coalition building is how the Student Debt Crisis Center ensures diverse voices and perspectives are heard, and we are happy to save space for organizations to represent their unique stakeholders and to act as trusted messengers.
These different lenses are important. Allies, like AARP, have helped strike down misconceptions about the victims of this crisis. Other groups, like the NAACP, have provided strong advocacy and racial justice voices that policy-makers cannot ignore.
Excitingly, current students, are joining the effort and organizing support for student debt cancellation on campuses. The growing number of new partners is one of the most important qualities of our movement and it is why we are on the precipice of a historic win.
SN: Student debt cancellation is a bipartisan issue for young people. How has the fight to cancel student debt become so important in the current political moment?
SDCC: President Biden promised on the campaign trail to cancel student debt. Voters elected him and mandated transformative policies that would shepherd our country out of the pandemic and into a new future. So far, he has failed to deliver on that promise, but it’s not too late. Americans are still eager for political leaders to secure a more prosperous, equitable, and certain future.
The best part? Biden can cancel student debt on his own through executive action. A gridlocked, divided Congress does not need to mean a lack of action on the student debt crisis. The president has the legal authority to cancel student debt and he can do so now.
Biden also promised to be a leader for all Americans. And, despite the misconceptions, student debt cancellation is broadly popular. Polling shows that two-thirds of all voters, and a majority of those who never went to college, support some form of student debt cancellation. Those trends continue even among young Republican voters where 56 percent are in favor of student debt cancellation. Everyone, no matter their political background or age, is impacted by student debt and wants leaders to take action.