Lystra Small-Clouden does not want this story to be about her race.
The 63-year-old mother of four from Horsham wants it to be about for-profit colleges that leave students buried in debt. About how she started an online Ph.D. program in 2010 after seeing an ad that she could finish in three years. About how it took five years, about how she graduated with $180,000 in debt that’s doubled since then, about how she’s depleted her savings.
Small-Clouden is Black, and her story isn’t just about race.
But she knows the story of the American student debt crisis in many ways is — and it’s a story a growing number of debtors and activists are telling as Washington weighs what to do next about student loan debt.
“It’s not that these faces are faces of irresponsible people,” said Small-Clouden, who has connected with other borrowers through the Debt Collective, a national debtors’ union. “These are faces of people that are in pain and cannot see the way to pay back this debt.”
Amid a pandemic that’s left millions in financial disarray and an antiracist movement that’s brought inequity to the forefront, some borrowers and politicians alike are pressing Washington to cancel student debt, saying it’s a racial justice imperative.
Blanket debt cancellation was something of a liberal pipe dream not long ago, but in response to the pandemic, President Joe Biden has said he wants Congress to pass legislation “immediately” forgiving $10,000 in federal student loan debt for every borrower, though that isn’t in his proposed $1.9 trillion rescue package.
But a group of more than 200 organizations, including the Debt Collective and the NAACP, say that is not enough. They’re advocating for Biden to use executive power to cancel student debt entirely, which they say could pull entire communities out of the cycle of intergenerational debt and chip away at the racial wealth gap.
“Before the COVID-19 public health crisis began, student debt was already a drag on the national economy, weighing heaviest on Black and Latinx communities, as well as women,” they wrote. “That weight is likely to be exponentially magnified given the disproportionate toll that COVID-19 is taking on both the health and economic security of people of color and women.”
It’s up for debate whether Biden could cancel $1.7 trillion in student loan debt without an act of Congress, where any cancellation plan would be the subject of significant wrangling. The president has already extended a pause on federal student debt payments through September, and just the $10,000 plan would cost an estimated $377 billion, equivalent to about half the yearly U.S. defense budget.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D., N.Y.), alongside Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D., Mass.) and other progressives, on Thursday reintroduced a resolution urging Biden to get behind a plan that would forgive $50,000 per borrower. Warren called canceling student loan debt “the single most effective executive action President Biden can take to close the racial wealth gap.”
During a news conference, Rep. Ayanna Pressley (D., Mass.) called on Biden to “be bold and responsive to the movement that elected him,” saying, “The student debt crisis has always been a racial and economic justice issue.”
Data show women hold two-thirds of the outstanding student loan debt nationwide, and Black women have the highest student debt among any racial or ethnic group, in part because they are more likely to attend for-profit colleges. Black women face a steeper gender pay gap than their white counterparts, and white families’ net worth was nearly 10 times greater than Black families in 2016, a disparity researchers trace to slavery.
The student debt problem is particularly acute in Philadelphia, among the poorest big cities in America and the largest city in a state that has some of the nation’s costliest public colleges. After the 2018-19 school year, the average debt load of a Pennsylvania college graduate was $39,000, the second-highest nationwide, according to the Institute for College Access and Success.
Jalil Mustaffa Bishop, a postdoctoral scholar at the University of Pennsylvania who coauthored an NAACP report on how the student debt crisis hits Black borrowers hardest, said the fact that a quarter of Philadelphia adults have student debt can be blamed on three factors: racism across generations, unequal public funding for higher education, and a labor market that underpays Black people.
He argues the plan to cancel $10,000 per borrower could be a start but is ultimately inadequate. About two-thirds of borrowers hold more than $10,000 in debt.
“If we’re trying to do something that’s about solving the debt crisis,” Bishop said, “we need to fundamentally rethink and abandon student loans as a way to fund higher education as a public good.”
Bishop was among a group of activists who gathered in the cold on Jan. 4 outside Biden’s Center City campaign headquarters to demand — weeks before he even took office — that he cancel student debt. Hundreds attended the demonstration, which was backed by the local chapter of the Debt Collective, a national group that organizes debtors to bargain with creditors and advocate radical policy solutions.
The group, which wants Biden to cancel debt entirely and roll out a plan for free college, is in the midst of a “debt strike,” in which debtors have pledged to make no payments through the first 100 days of the administration. The strike is symbolic given the payment pause Biden extended, but its supporters say temporary relief isn’t sufficient.
Lauren Horner, a 26-year-old community organizer who lives in South Philly, works with the Debt Collective and earned a master’s degree in international affairs from Penn State in 2018. She graduated with some $80,000 in debt after the two-year program.
After graduation, she started work at a nonprofit in the city but hasn’t been able to even begin paying down the principal.
Today, she worries how she’ll ever be able to afford a home or help care for her parents, and is dealing with the emotional toll of the financial burden incurred for her education.
“Moving forward, I’m thinking of the generation below me,” she said. “I am in the fight for them, so that they don’t have to experience the same burden, the same feeling as many of us have already had.”
Ditto for Cole Norgaarden, a Cornell University graduate who works in social services and said he has a little less than $12,000 in outstanding debt. A $10,000 forgiveness plan would nearly wipe out his balance. But he’s striking, too, pressing for policy solutions that tackle college affordability and arguing full cancellation is the only equitable solution.
“If this is a short-term stimulus then, sure, a group of people like me, [$10,000] will make a big change,” said Norgaarden, 26, of South Philly. “But for so many other people it really won’t make a meaningful difference. We see that following the preexisting lines of inequality.”
For Ewan Johnson, an organizer with the Black and Brown Coalition of Philadelphia, $10,000 won’t make a dent in the $180,000 in debt he holds after attending Temple University. The 24-year-old who’s the first in his family to graduate from college said that if he moved out from home, where he’s living now, and had to pay down his loans at the same time, he’d almost certainly default.
The debt, he said, makes him feel as if getting an education was a sacrifice, not a way to achieve success.
“Student debt is inevitably tied to my freedom, my ability to live and navigate and continue on,” he said. “And that can’t exist if I have to keep spending $1,800 a month on student loans.”
The Philadelphia Inquirer is one of more than 20 news organizations producing Broke in Philly, a collaborative reporting project on solutions to poverty and the city’s push toward economic justice. See all of our reporting at brokeinphilly.org.