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Biden Must Recognize All Student Debt as Hardship. It’s the Key Step to Relief.

The Department of Education is making debt relief contingent on proof of “hardship,” but the debt itself is hardship.

U.S. President Joe Biden delivers remarks on new efforts to cancel student debt and support borrowers, at the White House on October 4, 2023, in Washington, D.C.

President Joe Biden is making headway in canceling student debt, despite a right-wing Supreme Court that struck down his initial plan to cancel up to $400 billion in student debt last year. Although his Plan A used the HEROES Act of 2003, the Biden administration has since used the Higher Education Act of 1965 to administer $138 billion in relief. Most of this relief has come as fixes to existing programs like Public Student Loan Forgiveness (PSLF), which historically denied more than 90 percent of eligible borrowers.

Overall, Biden has canceled more student debt than any other president. But the Higher Education Act also gives the secretary of education the authority to immediately compromise, waive or settle all federal student debt, so why not use this power to its full extent?

Biden could zero out accounts. But rather than using his full powers, Biden seems dead set on a piecemeal approach instead. As recently as April 8, 2024, he announced another round of debt relief. This plan will eliminate interest for some borrowers, cancel debt for borrowers who’ve been paying for 20 or 25 years, and relieve those scammed by “low financial value” degrees. Moreover, this new plan will relieve borrowers facing “hardship.” However, the parameters of the word “hardship” have yet to be clearly defined. What makes a handful of bureaucrats more equipped to define hardship compared to, let’s say, actual borrowers, some of whom advocated to identify economic difficulties as grounds for cancelation during the negotiated rulemaking process? Now is the time for the Biden administration to make history and define “hardship” in the broadest way possible. Borrowers’ lives hang in the balance.

Black borrowers are disproportionately impacted by the student debt crisis. Decades of discrimination have barred Black people from accessing generational wealth, so they’re more likely to take on loans to pay for college. And even if Black students do attain a college degree (keep in mind 40 percent of student debtors overall have the debt and no degree), the racial wealth gap ensures it’ll take longer for them to pay off their loans. In this way, student debt enshrines legacies of systemic racial oppression. It maintains a social order, acting as a kind of surveillance to keep marginalized communities in check. Borrowers spend decades navigating a tedious bureaucracy in the hopes of relief, staying in jobs they hate and sacrificing their well-being in the hopes of cancelation. Even initiatives like the SAVE plan mirror a probationary system, offering debt relief only to those who conform to the expected behavior of a model debtor. Accept a low paying job, so your debt payment isn’t sky high. Pay on time even if you can’t afford rent, get laid off or suffer from a health emergency. Punishment seems to be the point. So then, the hardship of student debt extends beyond financial burden; it functions as a punitive measure for challenging an education system rife with racism, sexism and classism.

What does a debt sentence feel like? Well, I owe over $120,000 in student loans. I often think about Malcolm X’s time in a prison cell. He read the entire dictionary from cover to cover while incarcerated. He examined how black was defined in the English lexicon — in almost purely negative terms. Malcolm X had an epiphany with words. This defining moment in his life helped inspire him to fight to transform not just how Black people were perceived, but their material conditions. Studying revolutionary Black writers, orators, activists and poets convinced me the poetic process isn’t some trivial pastime. Poetry is power. For this reason, I pursued an MFA in poetry at Mills College at Northeastern University. I didn’t pursue a degree for a “return on investment.” I did it because an arts education felt urgent. Attaining an advanced degree led to higher wages as well. I worked as a poet in residence at the San Francisco Juvenile Justice Center, teaching creative writing classes for eight years. And yet, I still feel haunted by the mountain of student debt I owe for pursuing work that has only improved society.

Higher education in this country has a history of being reserved for the affluent. It’s no coincidence that college was affordable, even free, in the 1950s. This was before the civil rights movement ushered in an era of greater access to education for women, people of color and the working class. Taking this legacy into account, those outside the white, male, wealthy demographic are intruders of a kind, and, under this logic, they deserve to be penalized for overstepping societal boundaries. Student debt isn’t just a crisis; it serves as a punishment tool, reinforcing an inequitable social structure by discouraging attempts to dismantle the existing hierarchy and pursue work that prioritizes people and the planet above profits.

After over a decade of drowning in student debt, I decided to get organized. I’m part of the Debt Collective, the nation’s first union of debtors. My background as a poet helps me synthesize complex ideas about economic injustice. I work to engage with people’s emotions, transforming socially conditioned shame around debt into a sense of solidarity. Debt Collective has led the charge in abolishing debt, most recently erasing $10 million in outstanding student debt held by students at Morehouse College — the same school where Biden is set to be a commencement speaker. We push the envelope, creating life-changing tools that channel people’s responses to the hardship of debt into collective power. Our student debt release tool allows borrowers to petition the Department of Education (DOE) directly to use its authority through the Higher Education Act to eliminate all federal student debt. So far, 40,000 people have used it. That’s 40,000 firsthand accounts of families torn apart, medical emergencies, housing insecurity, suicidal ideation and just plain heartache. Sadly, the people who have filled out our tool have yet to receive a meaningful response from the DOE. Still, the issue of student debt is impossible to ignore.

A recent poll found that student debt relief is the top economic issue for 1 in 6 registered voters.

The Biden administration should do the right thing and review borrowers’ responses to our student debt release tool, then immediately and automatically cancel all federal student debt. If conservatives intervene, let them run for election, as the party hell-bent on putting people back in the red. The fact is, student debt hardship is relatively easy to define. It’s a ballooning balance, a secret shame and a poverty tax that worsens existing economic disparities. Student debt destroys dreams. Biden can use mass cancelation to activate hope for millions of people. All he has to do is get out of his own way.