Biden must cancel all student loan debt, including for those with advanced degrees | Derecka Purnell
MHer sister’s girlfriend was murdered in St. Louis in the summer of 2017. She was heartbroken, pregnant, and facing a sheriff who was executing an eviction for nonpayment of rent. Ghosts don’t send checks from the grave to pay for the living. Not for the poor anyway. There are very few inheritances, wills and dollars under the mattresses.
I had just graduated from Harvard Law School and was studying to take the bar exam to fulfill my childhood dream of becoming a civil rights lawyer. I was also near the bottom. My marriage was ending and I had two children under the age of four. I had been awarded the most prestigious law scholarship in the country, and with an pending income of $60,000, I was poised to become the highest earner in my entire family. I knew it was insufficient for me, my two toddlers, my sister, a newborn nephew, Washington DC’s rent hike and over $100,000 in student debt.
So I called a lawyer at a big law firm to ask for a job. I was ashamed and desperate. He told me he would think about it, but wasted no time in explaining that my sister had the “same opportunities” to go to Harvard as I did and that I shouldn’t try to support her financially. He couldn’t have been more wrong. She was one of the hardest working people I know, and if people were really rewarded for their hard work, then there would be no working poor. At the end of the call, I stood up for him, thanked him for his time, and decided never to contact him again.
I think of that moment every time I hear rich, white politicians rejecting total student loan forgiveness. They argue that this will primarily benefit middle- and upper-class doctors, lawyers and bankers rather than low-income people who need it most. Those who get lost, perhaps intentionally, are all first-generation graduates, black and of color, who struggle to repay their student loans because we are paying for the social inequality that keeps our families oppressed.
We don’t just borrow money to pay our loans. We borrow money to pay for our lives.
I went to an Ivy League law school. My tuition was almost free because I received need-based scholarships from Harvard. I made it all the way through college, but still needed to work two or three jobs at a time to pay rent and food. I’ve tutored, worked in a call center, taught dance classes, driven my mentor’s kids to their sports practices, and so much more. But law students aren’t allowed to work, and I had to borrow because I had to pay rent, buy groceries, pay my mother’s bills, send money for bail, send money for prom, send money for gas. Black women are burdened with the highest levels of student debt and we are punished twice for it: Because employers pay us $0.61 for every dollar they pay a white man, it’s harder to balance these balances. We start and end behind.
I was not alone. My peer school friends also used student loan money to pay their loved ones’ medical bills and help with public services because of the underlying racist, sexist and xenophobic causes of job insecurity and exploitation. If we had a fairer society, we wouldn’t have to borrow money in the first place. Instead, according to a study:
Four years after earning a bachelor’s degree, black graduates have nearly $25,000 more than their white peers: $52,726 on average, compared to $28,006 for the typical white bachelor’s graduate. This total debt gap is more than three times the previously documented black-white gap in undergraduate borrowing, which is “only” about $7,400 ($23,400 vs. $16,000). Black college graduates are also three times more likely to default on debt within four years of graduation.
The amount of student debt for vocational and graduate school students weighs heavily on our career prospects and is compounded by race, class and gender disparities. That’s why the argument that middle- and upper-class professionals “have no problem paying their debts because they have high salaries” doesn’t convince me. These employees are often looking for well-paid jobs because they have high student debt and income pressures.
I almost did. And I have several friends and colleagues who have dreamed in their college and law school applications of becoming public defenders, fighting for refugees, building community cooperatives, and protecting the planet. Yet upon graduation, struggling with six-figure debt, a corporate job became financially more attractive. The turnover rate in large law firms is extreme: lawyers come in, pay their debts, then leave. Half of the partners exit the top 100 law firms in five years, and turnover rates have increased from 19% to 25% in the past three years. Fifty percent of new lawyers reported that they decided not to have children because of their debt, and 37% took less favorable jobs with higher wages to pay their debts more quickly.
Student debt helps subsidize financial and legal ventures by ensuring people go after graduation and limits the agency of lawyers, scientists, engineers and others who might do more interesting or justice-oriented work in our communities.
Ironically, Joe Biden says he is against full student debt forgiveness because he was a public defender and attended public universities. He consistently views students who attended private Ivy League schools as upper-class earners who chose to go into debt. But according to the director of a law school at Harvard Law School predatory loan clinic, the overwhelming majority of those who attend elite schools graduate with no debt. Those who do are the ones who need the money to attend in the first place. ninety percent black students and 72% of Latino students borrow money to go to college, and 20 years after their first loan, both groups still have to more than 80% of the balance. In fact, only 0.3% of student federal borrowers attended schools like Harvard, Yale, and Penn.
I agree with President Biden on the importance of public schools. We need to fully fund them and make them free, because they were decades ago. With few lower-cost options still available, why are students of color who have the opportunity choosing to attend private and Ivy League schools and potentially incurring additional debt? Some hopeful students may have been sold on meritocracy and elitism as a way to gain status. But more importantly, many can hope to disrupt intergenerational poverty and appear more competitive to mitigate racism in the workplace. Unfortunately, tuition fees are rising so rapidly that no matter where they attend, the difference in debt load between public and private schools is only about $3,000 for the average student borrower. .
I find it odd that Biden is using “elitism” as an argument against completely canceling student debt. His children graduated from the University of Pennsylvania and Yale. He profited politically from Barack Obama’s credentials at Columbia and Harvard during their presidential campaign. He repeatedly announced Justice Ketanji Brown Jackon’s dual credentials during his nomination process. Half (maybe more) of its cabinet appointees appear to have degrees from schools like Yale, Harvard, Columbia, Stanford, and Brown (I couldn’t find a cabinet appointment from its own alma mater so far, the University of Delaware). And instead of drawing the line to prevent such a concentrated elite group from making decisions that matter to the world, he draws the line to canceling student debt?
As the date of repayment of student debt approaches, organizations, including the Collective debt, NAACP Youth and College Divisionand dream defenders increase the pressure to fight for cancellation. They remind the public that when Biden ran for president, he sworn to annul all federal undergraduate loans for individuals who attended historically black colleges and universities. He also promised to cancel those loans for anyone attending public colleges, provided they earn less than $125,000. And after two years in office, not only has he done neither, but is now offering a $10,000 capped cancellation plan that will make things worse for the average black student debt holder. , who you have to pay more following the accumulation of interest.
I am not convinced that the liberals who reject total student debt cancellation really care to focus on programs that specifically target low-income, exploited, black and brown people. If they did, they would be championing reparations at the local, state, and national levels, instead of creating token resolutions and cheap task forces. Democrats would expand universal pre-K, free daycare and free college programs to energize and encourage people of all ages to learn. They would provide universal housing so that tragedies like the one my sister endured would not be made worse by police and homelessness. And, they would choose racial justice and cancel all student debt, instead of promoting racial exploitation and oppression.