Biden must cancel all student loan debt, including for those with graduate degrees | Derecka Purnell

Politicians argue that canceling student debt will mainly benefit doctors and lawyers. But it is first-generation graduates of color who are struggling to make payments

My sister’s partner was murdered in St Louis in the summer of 2017. She was heartbroken, pregnant and facing a sheriff who was enforcing an eviction due to nonpayment of rent. Ghosts don’t send checks from the grave to pay for the living. Not for poor people anyway. There are very little inheritances, wills, and dollars under mattresses to go around.

I had just graduated from Harvard Law School and was studying to take the bar exam to accomplish my childhood dream of becoming a civil rights lawyer. I was also near rock bottom. My marriage was ending and I had two kids under four. I’d been awarded the most prestigious law fellowship in the country and, with a pending income of $60,000, I was prepared to become the highest earner in my entire family. I knew that was insufficient for me, my two toddlers, my sister, a newborn nephew, Washington DC’s rising rent, and more than $100,000 of student debt.

So I called an attorney at a major law firm to ask for a job. I was ashamed and desperate. He told me he would consider it, but wasted no time explaining how my sister had the “same opportunities” to go to Harvard as I did and that I should not try to financially support her. He couldn’t have been more wrong. She was one of the most hardworking people that I knew, and if people were actually rewarded for hard work, then there would be no poor, hardworking people. At the end of the call, I defended her, thanked him for his time, and resolved to never contact him again.

I think about this moment whenever I hear rich, white politicians reject total student loan cancellation. They argue that it will primarily benefit middle- and upper-class doctors, lawyers and bankers instead of low-income earners who need it the most. Who gets lost, perhaps intentionally, are all of the first generation, Black and people of color graduates who are struggling to make student loan payments because we are paying for the social inequality that keeps our families oppressed.

We are not only borrowing money to pay for our loans. We are borrowing money to pay for our lives.

I went to an Ivy League law school. My tuition was nearly free because I received need-based grants from Harvard. I had a full ride in college but still needed to hold two or three jobs at a time to pay for rent and food. I tutored, worked at a call center, taught dance classes, drove my mentor’s children to their sports practices and much more. But law school students are forbidden from working, and I needed to borrow loans because I had to pay rent, buy groceries, pay my mother’s bills, send bail money, send prom money, send gas money. 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 $1 that they pay a white man, it is harder to clear these balances. We start and end behind.

I was not alone. My friends at peer schools also used student loan money to pay medical bills for their loved ones and help with utilities due to the underlying racist, sexist and xenophobic causes of job insecurity and exploitation. If we had a more just society, we would not have to borrow money in the first place. Instead, according to one study:

Four years after earning a bachelor’s degree, Black graduates have nearly $25,000 more student loan debt than their white peers: $52,726 on average, compared with $28,006 for the typical white bachelor’s graduate. This total debt gap is more than triple the previously documented Black–white gap in undergraduate borrowing, which is “only” about $7,400 ($23,400 versus $16,000). Black college graduates are also three times more likely to default on their debt within four years of graduation.

The amount of student debt that professional and graduate school students have weighs significantly on our career prospects and is compounded by race, class and gender disparities. This is why the argument that middle class and upper class professionals “have no problem paying their debts because they have high salaries” is not persuasive to me. These earners often go after high-paying jobs because they have high student debt and demands on their income.

I almost did. And I have several friends and colleagues who dreamed in their college and law school applications about becoming public defenders, fighting for refugees, building community co-ops and protecting the planet. Yet at graduation, saddled with six-figure debt, a corporate job became financially more attractive. The turnover rate at major law firms is extreme: attorneys get in, pay their debts, then escape. Half of associates leave the top 100 law firms in five years, and turnover rates increased from 19% to 25% in the last three years. Fifty per cent of new lawyers reported that they decided to not have children as a result of their debt, and 37% took less favorable jobs with higher salaries to pay their debts faster.

Student debt helps to subsidize financial and legal firms by ensuring that people go there after graduation, and restricts the agency of lawyers, scientists, engineers and others who could do more interesting or justice-oriented work in our communities.

Ironically, Joe Biden claims that he is against total student debt cancellation because he was a public defender and attended public universities. He continuously casts students who attended private, Ivy League schools as upper-class earners who chose to be in debt. But according to Harvard Law School’s director of a predatory lending clinic, the overwhelming majority of those who attend elite schools do not graduate with any debt. The ones who do are the people who need money to attend in the first place. Ninety per cent of Black students and 72% of Latino students borrow money to attend college, and 20 years after their first loans both groups still owe more than 80% of the balance. In fact, only 0.3% of federal student borrowers attended schools like Harvard, Yale and Penn.

I agree with President Biden about the importance of state schools. We must fully fund them and make them tuition free, as they were decades ago. With a few lower-cost options still around, why do students of color who have the option choose to attend private and Ivy League schools and potentially incur additional debt? Some hopeful students may have been sold on meritocracy and elitism as a way to gain status. But more importantly, many may hope to disrupt intergenerational poverty and appear more competitive to mitigate racism in the job market. Unfortunately, the cost of tuition is rising so rapidly that, regardless of where they attend, the difference in debt load between public schools and private schools is only about $3,000 for the average student borrower.

I find it odd that Biden uses “elitism” as an argument against total student debt cancellation. His children hold degrees from University of Pennsylvania and Yale. He politically profited from Barack Obama’s Columbia and Harvard credentials during their presidential campaign. He repeatedly announced Justice Ketanji Brown Jackon’s double Ivy League credentials during her nomination process. Half (maybe more) of his appointed cabinet members seem to have degrees from schools like Yale, Harvard, Columbia, Stanford and Brown (I could not find a cabinet appointment from his own alma mater so far, the University of Delaware). And instead of drawing the line to prevent such a concentrated, elite group from making consequential decisions for the entire world, he draws the line at student debt cancellation?

As the student debt repayment date approaches, organizations including the Debt Collective, NAACP Youth and College Division, and Dream Defenders are increasing pressure to fight for cancellation. They are reminding the public that when Biden ran for president, he vowed to cancel all undergraduate federal loans for people who attended Historically Black Colleges and Universities. He also promised to cancel these loans for anyone who attended public colleges, as long as they made under $125,000. And after two years in office, not only has he done neither, but is now proposing an income-capped, $10k cancellation plan that will make matters worse for the average Black student debt holder, who would have to pay more as a result of interest accrual.

I am not convinced that liberals who reject total student debt cancellation really care about focusing on programs that specifically cater to low-income, class-exploited, Black and brown people. If they did, they would champion reparations at the local, state and national level, instead of creating symbolic 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 ensure universal housing so that tragedies like the one my sister endured are not compounded by police and homelessness. And, they would choose racial justice and cancel all student debt, instead of furthering racial exploitation and oppression.

  • Derecka Purnell is a Guardian US columnist


Derecka Purnell

The GuardianTramp

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