In 1972 the U.S. government reauthorized the Higher Education Act with new amendments that not only increased access to college for women and people of color but also left these same students at the “mercy of bankers.” As a result, they were forced to debt-finance their education, as scholar Elizabeth Tandy Shermer wrote in Indentured Students: How Government-Guaranteed Loans Left Generations Drowning in College Debt.
“We as a family have paid all our taxes and conformed to all the bureaucracies that now prevail and yet we find because of the present system that we can’t send our son to college,” a parent from Washington state wrote to the Treasury Department around the time of the reauthorization. As the fear, anger and despondency in letters from families swelled, department officials and Nixon aides began to call them “grief mail.”
These letters, penned by heartbroken parents 50 years ago, could have been written today. In October 2023, loan payments will be due for the first time in over three years. At that time, money that debtors like me have used to pay for medicine, get married, buy homes, pay down other debts and care for their communities will be funneled back to the government. Interest payments restarted on September 1, and since then, our loan totals have grown alongside our grief.
Just as was true 50 years ago, families cannot afford to send their children to college. In 2019, over 60 percent of students who graduated from four-year schools held an average of $28,950 in debt. Children still cannot afford payments on the loans that make it possible for them to attend school. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, about 7.7 million borrowers were in default on $168 billion in federally held student loans. And none of us can afford a world in which we don’t have access to education that is joyful, rich, emancipatory and free. It’s not too late for the government to realize this vision. We’re no longer begging for it in handwritten letters, but demanding it, using a legal framework that empowers us to do so.
On August 28, the Debt Collective, the nation’s first debtors’ union, of which I am a member, launched the Student Debt Release Tool, a questionnaire which generates a legal appeal that’s sent directly to the Department of Education, explaining why the borrower’s debt should be canceled. The department’s power to do so isn’t hypothetical; it’s outlined under the “compromise and settlement” provision in the Higher Education Act of 1965. The department has already used this very provision for targeted debt relief, such as the cancellation of debt for a borrower profiled in The New Yorker last year, and the discharge of nearly 6 billion dollars of debts for 560,000 students who attended Corinthian College, a for-profit school that collapsed in 2015.
This summer, after the Supreme Court struck down Biden’s first cancellation plan, the secretary of education asserted this same authority to “compromise, waive, and release debts,” and started a lengthy rulemaking process to pursue large-scale relief using this provision.
The appeals, co-created by students and the Debt Collective, are part of a powerful lineage of communication with the federal government — communication that’s necessary, but sometimes painful. Fellow Debt Collective member and friend, Emily Oliver, shared with me that she cried as she filled out her appeal, exhausted by having to tell the government all the ways in which debt had hurt her. “Despite jumping through so many bureaucratic hoops, even the smallest amount of relief after all these years has been impossible,” she told me. Recently, she’d had a child, whom she’d carried with her in the shadow of Biden’s first cancellation, when she believed that her daughter would be born into a home with fewer loans and more financial security.
In my appeal, I explained that debt has shaped every aspect of my life: where I’ve lived, what jobs I’ve held, and how much happiness and intimacy I’ve felt entitled to, which for a long time, sadly, was not much. Paying a $600 monthly loan bill for all of my 20s meant that I couldn’t be someone “who learned about herself and the world by really living in it,” I wrote.
Other people’s appeals contain stories more devastating than mine. Because of student debt, some people have become houseless, such as a debtor I talked to years ago who shared that she was living out of her car. Others have foregone having families, purchasing medical care or saving for retirement. Some have contemplated dying by suicide because their lives have felt so impossible: They have looked into the future and instead of seeing an autonomous life comprised of a career they love, family and community, all they’ve seen are loan bills.
Over 20,000 borrowers have filed an appeal so far, according to Nick Marcil from the Debt Collective. Some may be the descendants of those who wrote grief mail five decades ago. Together, we are a chorus of debtors across time and space telling the government that they have failed us, but that they have the chance to partially right their wrongs. Now, our correspondence has been transformed from tearstained letters into swords.
President Biden can use these appeals to cancel our debt, borrower-by-borrower, or he can do something bigger, something more historic and just: He can cancel every penny of the debt at once using an executive order — skipping over piecemeal relief, confusing applications and rollouts, forms that give Republicans time to file lawsuits, and forms that parse who is worthy of this relief, whose life has been hard enough to qualify for justice.
Though an executive order would surely be met with legal challenges, it’s a lot harder to collect on debt that’s already been discharged. As Debt Collective cofounder Astra Taylor said in a CNBC interview: “Cancel it all, immediately, and dare the court to reimpose life-destroying debts on 45 million people.”
This cancellation could help usher in a future where instead of telling our debt stories in grief mail or in legal appeals, we celebrate the rich, meaningful education we received without cost, education that helped us to learn more about ourselves and the world and shepherded us into adult lives, freely, without debt.
The stakes have never been higher (and our need for your support has never been greater).
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