Photo showing the entrance monuments of American University
The main campus of American University. Photo by Will Schick

The D.C. Council voted unanimously on June 1 to call on the federal government to cancel all student loan debt and “begin the transition to education as a public good.” The council’s resolution comes as a handful of cities like Boston, Cambridge, and Philadelphia have issued similar calls for President Joe Biden or Congress to eliminate student loan debt.

Some, however, argue that canceling student loan debt does little to address the underlying problem: the rising cost of higher education, which has skyrocketed over the past decade. Other critics say the expense of forgiving student debt should not be forced on taxpayers, and that such a sweeping solution will not target the help to those most in need.

In either case, spiraling tuition has led to a precipitous rise in debt, creating a situation unlike any before it. According to data compiled by the Federal Reserve, student loan debt has nearly tripled in size from $600 billion in 2008 to over $1.7 trillion in the past year. Increased demand for higher education is another reason the debt has grown so much. One-fifth of Americans carry this kind of debt, owing an average of $38,792, according to Experian. 

Experian also notes that residents in D.C. owe the highest per capita amount of student loan debt in the country, with the average borrower burdened with a whopping $60,651. Ward 4 Councilmember Janeese Lewis George said this affects people of all demographics, but particularly women, seniors, and people of color.

Student loan debt averages across the U.S.
Infogram

Despite any conceptions to the contrary, Lewis George said, “student loan debt is not just about millennials.” 

In fact, according to the U.S. Department of Education, there are more people over the age of 50 with outstanding student loans than there are people under the age of 25 with loans that are due. Those over the age of 50 tend to owe far more than those under 25 — around $41,000 versus about $15,000.

Racial and gender disparities in student loan debt are well-documented. Women hold two-thirds of all U.S. student loan debt, according to the American Association of University Women. And a 2018 study published in the academic journal Sociology of Race and Ethnicity found that student debt holders who are Black, on average, owed 85% more than their white peers.

A study conducted by the Brookings Institution found that Black college graduates owed nearly double the student loan debt of their white counterparts four years after graduation.

Lewis George, who co-introduced the measure with seven colleagues, noted that resolutions, though not binding, are important because they are one of the only ways for D.C. residents to express their will to the federal government. 

“Since D.C. doesn’t have voting representation in Congress, [passing a resolution like this one] is really how we express our will as a District on issues that deeply impact our residents,” Lewis George said.

She is optimistic that student debt cancellation can happen under the Biden administration, saying the president has the authority and campaigned on this promise. 

During his campaign, Biden promised to create a public service student loan relief program that would forgive $10,000 per year for up to five years. While many members of the Democratic Party say the president has the authority to cancel the debt via executive action, Biden has not yet announced whether he concurs. In April, the president asked the Department of Education to provide him a memo examining his legal authority to take such action.

“Our administration prides itself on being one of the most diverse administrations this country has had,” Lewis George said. “And since we have such a diverse administration … I’m hopeful that Biden will listen … and make this happen.” 

The first-term legislator, a democratic socialist, also said that she believes student loan debt is unique when compared to other kinds of debt.

“Education, in and of itself, should be a public good. And so, no student should have to accrue debt to be educated,” Lewis George said.

Shouldering the burden of student loans

 

The D.C. Council has long mulled over the issue of student loan debt. In 2017, the District created the position of a student loan ombudsman as a way to assist families and prospective students in navigating the student loan lending system. Located within the Department of Insurance, Securities and Banking, the office also helps families with finding ways to relieve their debt.

According to the office’s 2020 annual report, the ombudsman met with 119 District residents in fiscal year 2019 and fielded 202 complaints related to student loan programs.

In interviews with residents across the D.C. metro area, families talked about how student loan debt has become an overwhelming burden for them. 

Tee Sule, who was born and raised in the District and resides in Shaw, said she owes about $179,000 in student loans after borrowing what she estimates to have been about $75,000. 

“There was a period when I couldn’t pay them … and then through time with interest and stuff, it just ballooned up to that,” Sule explained.

A graduate of both George Washington University and Catholic University, Sule said that despite earning a “relatively high” salary of $70,000, she can only afford to make the minimum monthly payment of $550, which covers the interest but does not lower her debt.

The added monthly expense is enough to prevent her from moving out of public housing.

“I can’t afford rent and student loans,” Sule said before adding that she accrued an additional $5,000 debt after contracting COVID-19 this past year. “All of this debt, it seems like it’s never-ending.”

When Kia Ellis graduates next year with her third degree — a master’s degree from American University in strategic communication — she estimates she will owe somewhere between $140,000 to $150,000 in student loan debt.

Ellis, who lives in Arlington but is originally from Louisiana, said that she was one of the first people in her family to go to college — an achievement that created its own set of hurdles. 

“It was really difficult for me to find a cosigner because I come from a low socio-economic background,” Ellis said. “I guess the banks didn’t trust anyone like my dad, my mom, anyone from my family to cosign a loan with me.”

Ellis began her college studies at Hollins University, a private college in Roanoke, Virginia, which charges close to $40,000 a year. She soon found herself owing money that she could not repay.

Ellis, who funded her first semesters at Hollins primarily through federally backed Pell Grants, said that one day she received a notice telling her she owed the school $3,000.

“I have no idea how that ended up happening,” Ellis said.

Ellis eventually left the school in 2010, unable to pay the debt and unsure whether she would ever finish her degree.

But several years later, Ellis enrolled at Louisiana State University, a public university that was much more affordable. She graduated with a B.A. in sociology in 2014.

Ellis, who is Black and has a Master in Fine Arts in creative writing from American University, said that she remains determined to pursue her intellectual passions and interests despite any financial hurdles.

Still, Ellis said her student loans cause her stress because she would have no one to turn to if she were to default on them. “I can’t go to one of my parents [and ask] ‘Can you help me out with this?’ or ‘Can you leverage your mortgage?’” Ellis said. “I would be up a creek without a paddle.”

Student loan debt is unique because it is treated differently from other kinds of consumer debt in bankruptcy court. While other types of debt are often freely discharged in bankruptcy, student loan debt requires proof from borrowers that paying the loan would constitute an “undue hardship,” a challenging legal burden to meet.

According to the Congressional Research Service, the reason for this additional process is to prevent borrowers from abusing the federal student loan program.

The stress of having student loans

 

Alan Collinge is the founder and organizer of Student Loan Justice, an activist organization that has accumulated over 1 million signatures on Change.org calling on the government to cancel all federal student loan debt.

Collinge, who is 51 and lives “off-the-grid” in Wisconsin, left the California Institute of Technology in 1998 with a bachelor’s in aeronautical science and approximately $37,000 in student loans. At the time, he hoped to become an aerospace engineer in the defense industry. 

A few years after graduation, however, Collinge found himself “underemployed” and nowhere near fulfilling his dreams. “And despite my best efforts to keep my loans in good stead through deferment, forbearance, et cetera, my lender threw my loans into default,” Collinge said.

Before he knew it, Collinge said, his loans exploded into six figures. “I was getting bills for over $100,000 by 2002 or so,” Collinge said.

About seven years ago, which was the last time Collinge checked, the amount he owed had ballooned to about $300,000.

With his debt climbing, Collinge decided to turn to research, and in 2004 he turned to activism.

Collinge sees no benefits to the current student loan lending system. In his view, the student loan system serves only as a way of controlling people.

“There are two ways to conquer and enslave a country,” Collinge said. “One is by the sword, and the other is by debt.”

Nicole Leblanc, a 35-year-old resident of Silver Spring, Maryland, is autistic and has anxiety, a non-verbal learning disorder, and attention deficit disorder.

According to Leblanc, not only is it difficult to find steady full-time work as a person with disabilities, but it’s also difficult navigating the student loan lending system.

“All the paperwork and all that. … Our government, our capitalistic system makes being disabled a full-time job, dealing with all the bureaucracy,” Leblanc said.

Leblanc, who pays $1,179 in monthly rent, said she also owes $1,177 total in loans for classes she took online to get an associate degree in behavioral science through the Community College of Vermont.

Currently, Leblanc has a loan deferment as part of the pandemic relief program that exempts borrowers from having to submit paperwork or pay back their loans during the COVID-19 public emergency. The payment deferment, however, is set to expire Sept. 30.

Leblanc dreams of finishing her degree and becoming a disability policy advocate one day but is still about eight classes short of completing her degree. The thought of having to pay back her loan looms over her.

“One should not have to choose between rent, food, and paying student loans,” she said.

What’s being done at the federal level?

 

For the past several years, Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) has been calling for action on student loans. In 2019, she co-sponsored the Student Debt Cancellation Act, a bill that called for the elimination of all student loan debt. The legislation did not make it past the three committees it was referred to then, but was reintroduced last month.

In February, Norton co-sponsored a House resolution calling on President Biden to take executive action to cancel student loan debt up to $50,000 per borrower. And last month, Norton co-sponsored the Zero-Percent Student Loan Refinancing Act, which would allow people who carry student loan debt to refinance their loans without further interest.  

Each bill was referred to one or more committees in the House on the day it was introduced but has not progressed since. But Norton said she is hopeful.

“This is a classically nonpartisan bill,” Norton said, when asked if she thought the idea should be equally as appealing to Republicans. 

But the issue of student loan debt is just a reflection of a bigger problem, Norton said: the need for more affordable higher education.

“We allow free education through the 12th grade. And now we see many states who are beginning to incorporate, or to pass bills that allow free tuition for the first two years of college,” Norton said.

The reason for this change is simple, according to Norton: More jobs today require workers to have higher education, and states are beginning to recognize this need.

Norton said she is open to supporting future initiatives such as free college tuition “as one way to eliminate some of this college debt problem that confronts young people today.”

Meanwhile, the mounting pressure on government leaders across the country is cause for optimism, Norton said. She, like Lewis George, believes the president has the authority to resolve the issue and should have taken executive action by now.

The D.C. Council’s resolution and others like it “will bring pressure on the president and continuing pressure on the Congress,” Norton said.

This article was co-published with The DC Line.

Will Schick covers DC government and public affairs through a partnership between Street Sense Media and The DC Line. Year one of this joint position was made possible by the Poynter-Koch Media and Journalism Fellowship, The Nash Foundation, and individual contributors.


Correction (06.10.2021)

This article has been updated to reflect that the Change.org petition urging President Biden to cancel all federal student loans has more than 1 million signatures. We originally reported there were more than 1.5 million signatures.