By Ariama C. Long
When President Joe Biden announced his student debt relief plan, most people leapt for joy. But despite millions of borrowers qualifying to have some or all loans wiped out, the implementation of the program has been tied up in litigation. This Tuesday, the fight went all the way to the Supreme Court.
The justices have scheduled hours of arguments, but it is likely to be months before borrowers learn the outcome of the case. Generally speaking, decisions are handed out by the end of June.
Biden first went public with the plan last August. At least 43 million borrowers are eligible for some debt forgiveness, with 20 million who could have their debt erased entirely, reported the Associated Press (AP). The Congressional Budget Office has said the program will cost about $400 billion over the next three decades.
Almost immediately, six Republican-led states and two students filed a lawsuit.
A lower court dismissed the lawsuit involving Arkansas, Iowa, Kansas, Missouri, Nebraska, and South Carolina. But a panel of three federal appeals court judges in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 8th Circuit—all of them appointed by Republican presidents—put the program on hold during an appeal, said the AP.
The question then became whether the Biden administration had the authority from Congress to implement the program. Biden used the extended Higher Education Relief Opportunities for Students Act (HEROES), originally enacted after the 9/11 terror attack, to allow the secretary of education to waive or modify the terms of federal student loans as necessary in connection with a national emergency. The COVID-19 pandemic became a national emergency in March 2020 under former President Donald Trump, said the AP.
The AP reported that Biden said the end to the national emergency doesn’t change the legal argument for student loan debt cancellation because the pandemic affected millions of student borrowers who might have fallen behind on their loans during the emergency. He’s facing Republican-appointed judges outnumbering Democratic judges on the Supreme Court, 6–3.
Biden announced another nationwide pause on student loans in the meantime, leaving millions of Black borrowers anxiously awaiting the court’s decision.
Queens resident Madeline Mensah, 34, an example of someone affected by student loan. She is a clinical social worker who graduated from SUNY Buffalo and went on to get her master’s from Fordham University in 2020. Her annual salary is about $65,000. She believes that she has well over $100,000 in student loan debt, but hasn’t paid off all of her undergrad or private student loans, either. She’s worried about paying bills, maintaining her credit, and will probably have to defer her loans once the pause comes off.
“I feel like with Republicans, they want you to continue to struggle here in America like the whole point is the struggle,” said Mensah. “I’ll drown and I think people know that everybody will drown.”
Zakiyah Shaakir-Ansari, 55, is the advocacy director for Alliance For Quality Education. Although she has already paid off her own student loans, she does have eight children, seven of whom would be potentially affected by the court’s decision.
“My daughters are looking for this to be a thing that comes to fruition so they can be free of debt and actually turn that money to investing in the ones that have children,” said Shaakir-Ansari.
Over the years, Shaakir-Ansari said, she has co-signed and assisted her children where she can in financing school. As soon as the announcement for the loan forgiveness program was made, they assisted each other in applying. She said her younger children have fewer loans than the older ones because her family was not as financially stable before now.
Many in the country are upset about the program and have not acknowledged how racialized the issue has become, she said.
“I learned very early on how much politics is in education, period,” said Shaakir-Ansari. “The difference now is that Trump really brought out the beast and reignited the racist phobias, opened up people to say whatever they want, and the right-wing MAGA folks that have infiltrated. The thing that we’ve been missing and what’s taken a back seat is our humanity.”
Shaakir-Ansari said the loan forgiveness plan essentially symbolizes a “handout” for ethnic and racial groups that fall into the category of “other” across the country for those who oppose it, even though the program will benefit countless low-income groups regardless of race. Canceling the forgiveness program will only further the vicious cycle of inequities in the country and hinder people’s ability to have upward mobility, she said.
“I hope that the Supreme Court will uphold this and allow this to be a thing, because it will be good for the country and help people who have been chasing this school debt tail for decades and don’t see a way out—my children being some,” said Shaakir-Ansari.
Whether or not the debt gets canceled, the case’s resolution will bring changes. While federal student loan payments are currently paused, that will end 60 days after the case is resolved. If the case hasn’t been resolved by June 30, payments will start 60 days after that, said AP.
Ariama C. Long is a Report for America corps member and writes about politics for the Amsterdam News. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep her writing stories like this one; please consider making a tax-deductible gift of any amount today by visiting https://bit.ly/amnews1.