Student debt relief means freedom for millions

Millions of students, and their families, can breathe easier now because student loan relief went from a “fringe” idea to a reality. They can finally think about buying a home or starting a family or a business, pursuing a passion. And yes, they can get moving on changing the world.

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Students walk through campus at the University of Illinois Chicago, hours after President Biden announced his long-awaited student loan relief plan,

Students walk through campus at the University of Illinois Chicago, hours after President Joe Biden announced his student loan relief plan.

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

Nelson Mandela once said, “Education is the most powerful weapon you can use to change the world.” I love that sentiment. I also know that when student loan debt is tying you down, changing the world can feel out of reach.

That’s why the White House’s new plan for student loan debt relief is good news, especially for Black and brown students who make up a large percentage of borrowers.

Here are the basics: The government will cancel up to $20,000 in debt for students who went to school on Pell Grants and up to $10,000 for other federal loan recipients. You can get the benefit if your personal income is under $125,000. To find out how to sign up, you can go to studentaid.gov/debt-relief-announcement.

Up to 43 million borrowers will benefit. Black students, in particular, will benefit because we are more likely to borrow for school, more likely to take out bigger loans and twice as likely to get Pell Grants.

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You can qualify for the relief if you went to a vocational school, not just an academic institution — and whether you finished your degree. And in addition to past borrowers, current and future students will benefit, too. The new plan will put a cap on monthly payments for student loans, lowering payments by more than $1,000 a year. This will allow more people to consider going on to higher education in the first place.

Civil rights advocates have been calling for and organizing for this kind of relief for years.

Which is not to say it’s perfect; it isn’t. Many civil rights leaders, along with Senate allies Elizabeth Warren and Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, wanted debts wiped out up to $50,000.

And there are questions about whether the $125,000 income cap is racially equitable. Brookings Institution analyst Andre Perry told The Grio a $125,000 income is not the same for Black graduates as it is for white grads. He points out that because systemic inequities allowed white families to build more wealth, Black graduates have fewer resources for paying back loans even if they make the same salaries as their white counterparts today.

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I agree we have a long way to go to repair wealth inequity in our country. We need to keep pushing for systemic solutions that go far beyond the scope of this relief program. At the same time, it’s a good thing that 90% of debt reduction under the program will go to borrowers who earn under $75,000.

And most Americans agree. Polls show this is a highly popular program, with the majority of people polled supporting some sort of debt relief. Americans understand that most students enter higher education in a good faith effort to reach a firmer footing in the middle class and a chance at the American dream.

The bottom line is that millions of students — and their families — can breathe easier now because student loan relief went from a “fringe” idea to a reality. This is a lesson for all of us not to lose faith in the ideas that make this country stronger, even if they take time to be understood and implemented.

Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts notes that one in four Black borrowers will see their balance canceled completely because of this plan. That gives millions of Black graduates the freedom to dream. It means they can finally think about buying a home or starting a family. They can start a business or pursue a passion. And yes, they can get moving on changing the world.

That benefits all of us, and I can’t wait to see what this generation of graduates will accomplish.

Ben Jealous is president of People For the American Way and a professor at the University of Pennsylvania. His next book, “Never Forget Our People Were Always Free,” will be published in December 2022.

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