DENVER — President Joe Biden has said he will announce some sort of decision on student loan forgiveness in the coming weeks.
He ruled out canceling $50,000 of debt per borrower, which several progressive politicians and activists have called on him to do. But, during the 2020 election campaign, he pledged to set aside up to $10,000 as president. Recently, former publicist Jen Psaki said the aid could be targeted at those earning less than $125,000 a year.
Collectively, Americans currently owe nearly $1.75 trillion in student loans, with about one in eight having some level of student loan debt, according to NerdWallet. However, even among those with student loans, there is great debate over what should be done – and whether widespread loan forgiveness is a good idea.
The Case of Forgiveness: Gabi, a First Generation Student
We met Gabi Gonzales just after noon at the Pearl Street Mall in Boulder.
By this point, she already had three hours of classes under her belt — she’s cutting classes for a summer semester at the University of Colorado at Boulder to save money on tuition — and she was starting her shift. working as an organizer for New Era Colorado, a youth civic engagement organization.
“Since it’s summer and school’s out, we’re teaming up on the street,” Gonzales told us between interactions with Pearl Street shoppers. “We were talking to a lot of people about student debt, and a lot of people were coming up to us, telling us their stories.”
The stories Gonzales hears about the burden of student debt often remind him of his own.
Her role at New Era Colorado is her fourth job while in college to help cover college costs. She is a first-generation college student and said her parents are doing everything they can to ensure she graduates.
“I have a lot of conversations with them about this burden,” Gonzales said. “And I feel guilty. Earlier this semester, I had a conversation about whether or not I wanted to go home, so that tuition would be cheaper for everyone involved.
READ MORE: State Attorneys General Seek Full Forgiveness of Federal Student Loan Debt
Between his time at CU Boulder and his freshman year at Texas Lutheran University, Gonzales expects to graduate with around $170,000 in debt. She and her colleagues at New Era Colorado feel the workers of tomorrow are being crushed and forgotten, and they are pushing leaders to cancel student loans.
“It would be a huge weight on my shoulders,” Gonzales said. “Because I wouldn’t have to worry about my parents… Everyone deserves an education. Everyone deserves the opportunity to succeed and to have open doors and opportunities.
The costs of going to college have risen dramatically and continue to rise. According to NerdWallet, tuition at public colleges and universities has increased 233% since 1973, and overall student debt has increased 266% since 2006. Meanwhile, workers at the median wage percentile have only seen an hourly wage growth of half one percent per year.
The case against forgiveness: Leila, who repaid her loans during the pandemic
On the other hand, there’s another relevant statistic in this discussion: 18% of student borrowers continued to make payments throughout the pandemic, even when they didn’t have to. Former President Donald Trump imposed a moratorium on required payments and interest in March 2020, and President Biden has extended it several times.
Leila Sueper at Parker is among those who have continued to diligently make monthly payments in a way that most have not.
“I saw it as an opportunity,” Sueper said of the break. “I don’t accrue any interest, and it’s a chance for me to pay at least what I normally paid.”
Sueper said she had “significant debt to pay off” after graduating from the University of Colorado at Denver in 2003 – around $50,000. She even made the decision to drop out of Boston University, where she spent her freshman year, largely due to higher tuition and available financial aid.
Sueper carried that debt for the next 18 years – a feeling she described as “heavy” – until the pandemic pause in accrued interest gave her a chance to pay off the remaining balance. She still remembers the day in the spring of 2021 when, sitting on her computer at her dining room table, she made the final payment on her student loan.
“It was amazing,” she recalls. “It was amazing. It’s one of those… You feel like, I don’t know, 10 pounds lighter. You feel really good. You feel really good. And then you start thinking what you’re going to do with your extra money.
It was around the same time that Sueper was making his final student loan payments that the idea of debt cancellation began to become more mainstream politically, which he didn’t sit well with.
READ MORE: Who will be upset if President Biden cancels student debt?
“There was a knee-jerk reaction — like, oh my God, I just finished paying this, I should have done what everyone else did and not pay,” she said. “And then maybe I would have had a chance to make amends. I felt a bit cheated. And then it was like, ‘Yeah, I don’t have to deal with it. And I’m done. And that’s fine. When I signed my name for these loans when I was 18, I knew I was going to have to pay it back. Life is a matter of choice. And life is made of sacrifices.
A new path is gaining momentum
Fewer Americans are making the specific choice Sueper describes in recent years. Undergraduate enrollment at colleges and universities fell more than 6% between 2019 and 2021, according to the National Student Clearinghouse.
However, not all schools experienced this decline.
Amid the dramatically rising costs of higher education, students like Denver’s Noel Hernandez are taking another route: business school. Hernandez spoke to Denver7 about her decision to take this approach between her final classes for her automotive collision repair certification at Emily Griffith Technical College.
“I was kind of born and raised on a farm,” Hernandez said. “So I’ve always worked with my hands. And then, looking at this with COVID (and) everything else, I’ve always seen that trades are kind of where the money is.
It’s not that a traditional four-year college experience never crossed Hernandez’s mind. At age 17, he joined the Marines to make a college degree a financially viable option. His service to the nation offered him the chance to go to New Mexico State University, but it didn’t last long.
“It wasn’t really my thing,” Hernandez said. “I did about two and a half weeks, dropped out and went to trade schools. I couldn’t stand sitting at a desk and standing around doing a bunch of paperwork and stuff. Nothing against it, it just wasn’t for me.
Hernandez, and each of his classmates at Emily Griffith Technical College, will graduate without a penny in student debt. As a public school, it offers grants and scholarships that cover most costs, and many students participate in apprenticeships with their classes to help cover the rest. Classes are scheduled around shifts to allow students to continue working while receiving their education.
“When you come to us, you’re not going to graduate on a loan with us, and you’re not going to graduate with debt,” said Randy Johnson, executive director of Emily Griffith. “It’s amazing, especially when you walk away with professional certification and a skill that carries you through life.”
Emily Griffith’s instructors have found that the pandemic has caused many people to rethink their life plans and seek new skills and certifications that will enable new careers, often in higher paying fields.
“Basically, I want to be the jack of all trades and the master of everything, not the master of nothing,” Hernandez said, summarizing his outlook on life after certification. “That’s more or less what I’m looking for.”
What happens after
These are just a few of the millions of different stories and perspectives on the costs and benefits of higher education. We want you to weigh in too. Email us at [email protected] with your opinions and stories.
An announcement from President Biden on a possible student loan forgiveness could come any day.
Editor’s note: Denver7 360 | In Depth explores several aspects of the topics that matter most to Coloradans, bringing different perspectives so you can make up your own mind about the issues. To comment on this story or other 360 In-Depth stories, email us at [email protected] or use this form. See more 360 | In-depth stories here.