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Here’s what it would mean to these Americans if Biden canceled student loan debt

Lindsay Barkley poses for a portrait outside of her home on June 10, 2022.
Lindsay Barkley poses for a portrait outside of her home on June 10, 2022.

By Katie Lobosco, CNN Photographs by Austin Steele, CNN

About 43 million people are waiting to find out if President Joe Biden will wipe away all or part of their federal student loan debt.

In April, after facing months of pressure from other Democrats to cancel $50,000 per borrower, Biden said he was considering some broad student loan forgiveness, though a smaller amount.

On the campaign trail, Biden said he would support $10,000 in forgiveness. White House officials have indicated that he is also looking at setting an income threshold so that high-earning borrowers would be excluded from the debt relief.

The decision is expected to come before August 31, when the pandemic-related pause on federal student loan payments is set to end.

Until now, Biden has taken a more targeted approach to student debt relief. His administration has authorized the cancellation of $25 billion so far — more than any other administration — largely for borrowers who were defrauded by their for-profit colleges and for permanently disabled borrowers. He has also temporarily expanded the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program that forgives the debt of government and nonprofit workers after 10 years of payments and made changes to the income-driven repayment plans, bringing millions of borrowers closer to forgiveness.

While broad student loan debt cancellation could deliver financial relief to millions of Americans, the implications of such a significant policy move — intended and otherwise — are complicated. On its own, the action would do nothing to bring down the cost of college for future borrowers or help those who have already paid for their degrees.

CNN spoke with eight former college students about what it would mean for them if Biden canceled some student loan debt.

Educator: $68,000 in student loan debt

“It’s pretty soul crushing,” said Lindsay Clausen, 33, who has watched her student loan debt grow from $40,000 to $68,000 since she finished her master’s degree — despite making regular payments.

Clausen went to the State University of New York at Potsdam to earn her bachelor’s degree in English Language Arts and 6-12 education, choosing the school partly because the campus was close enough that she could live at home to save money. While substitute teaching, she decided to pursue her master’s degree — which typically must be obtained within five years of earning an initial teaching certificate to teach in New York state.

When she finished her master’s degree in educational technology in 2014, teaching jobs were scarce in the Potsdam area and her now-husband wanted to move back home to Washington state. Clausen decided to make the move with him, and after a couple of years she landed a job as an instructional design coordinator at a university, where she still works today. The job allows her to combine her teaching and technology skills.

Clausen has been enrolled in an income-driven repayment plan, one of the several repayment options available for federal student loan borrowers. IDR plans allow a borrower to make smaller monthly payments, which are tied to the borrower’s income and family size. But because smaller payments are being made, hardly anything is going toward paying down the principal and the amount of outstanding debt has grown.

Clausen could qualify for debt forgiveness after making 10 years of payments under the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program because she works in the public sector. But Clausen is skeptical after reading about how very few people have qualified so far. Many borrowers were not eligible for forgiveness when they thought they would be because they had the wrong type of federal loan or were enrolled in the wrong type of repayment plan. The Biden administration has temporarily expanded the PSLF program, aiming to fix the problems that earlier borrowers faced and recount payments that may have been missed.

“Hope is the operative word here. I’m not necessarily banking on it 100% because who knows with the next administration what they’re going to decide,” she said.

Congress would need to act to do away with Public Service Loan Forgiveness — something lawmakers did not take up after the Trump administration proposed cutting it from the federal budget four years in a row.

If Biden canceled some student debt with the stroke of a pen, it would end a lot of uncertainty and anxiety for Clausen. But she says $10,000 wouldn’t make much of a difference for her.

“I couldn’t do what I do today if I didn’t have my degree. And I’m very proud of the work that I’ve done and the people I’ve met along the way — it’s been life-changing for sure,” Clausen said.

“I guess the part I struggle with is why we put a price tag on access and education at all. Because it seems to be something that is only keeping down middle- to low income- folks,” she added.

Human resources representative: $80,000 in student loan debt

Monica Mitchell, 43, says she borrowed about $80,000 for “a better future that never happened.”

She enrolled twice at the now-shuttered Vatterott College, a for-profit school — first to get a degree in computer programming and then in the school’s cosmetology program. She said that neither ultimately led her to a better-paying job and she’s currently working in human resources.

As a young single mother of two kids, Mitchell considered enlisting in the military. But after her sister was deployed to Iraq straight out of boot camp, she decided to explore her college options instead. She met with a recruiter from Vatterott College, which had a campus near her home in Missouri.

“I wanted something fast and accelerated. Four years was too long having two kids. In my mind, Vatterott was going to give me an edge up,” Mitchell recalled.

The program wasn’t quite what she expected. The instructors moved fast, and she didn’t get training in the software she thought she’d need. She finished with an associate degree in computer programming in 2004.

Five years later, she decided to enroll in a cosmetology program that Vatterott offered. But, she said, the school didn’t document her hours and those of other students correctly — shortchanging them time and delaying their graduation dates. She left after three to four months without a license.

“It was a real waste of time. So go figure, years later I’m still sitting with massive debt with nothing to show for it,” Mitchell said.

She mostly lives paycheck to paycheck and hasn’t been able to make any payments on her student loan debt. The loans fell into default before the Covid-19 pandemic. The Biden administration has said it will move loans out of default before the pandemic-related pause on payments ends, which could get her back on track.

What also frustrates Mitchell is that the government has canceled some federal student debt for students from other for-profit schools that misled their students. Those who were enrolled at Vatterott when it shut down — citing economic and regulatory conditions — are also eligible for debt relief from the federal government, but that was years after Mitchell attended. She’s not currently eligible for any relief as far as she knows.

The Biden administration has been working to accelerate offering relief to borrowers who were defrauded by their for-profit colleges.

“I’m just wondering why some students got their loans forgiven and others, like myself, are still being burdened,” Mitchell said. “They had the same issues that I had, the same complaints that I had. It’s just a mess,” she added.

If some of her student loan debt was canceled, Mitchell has considered returning to school again in hopes of achieving the better future she’s been seeking.

Retired veteran: $0 of student loan debt

Max Messer Jr., 63, doesn’t have any student loan debt and neither do his children, largely because he and his wife saved enough money to help them pay for their college costs.

A son of a coal miner, Messer joined the military immediately after high school so that he could get help paying for college.

“I knew my parents couldn’t afford to send me to college. I decided that at that time the best path for me was to join the military,” Messer said.

He attended a school in Maine, taking classes at night while working full time for the US Air Force. After six years, he graduated with a bachelor’s degree in business management with a concentration in human resources — and without any student debt. He paid for some of the cost out of pocket and the US Air Force covered the remainder. Messer eventually made a career outside the military in human resources and is now retired.

His daughter is about to finish undergrad and will be looking for teaching positions. His son is pursuing a five-year master’s degree program in mechanical engineering. Messer expects his savings and the scholarships and grants his children received to allow both of them to graduate without any student debt.

“My wife and I found a way to do it. We sacrificed so that our children would not have to take out student loans and would have a better economical start to their adult lives,” Messer said.

Messer said he is not political and certainly not “anti-Biden,” but he is opposed to the idea of federal student loan debt cancellation.

“It doesn’t seem fair to me. If student loans are forgiven, that money is going to have to come from somewhere, and it most likely will be the middle class,” he said.

Meteorologist: $61,000 in student loan debt

“The system does not work for us, but against us,” said Angel Enriquez, 29, who was a first-generation college student.

Enriquez borrowed about $40,000 to earn his bachelor’s degree in meteorology from the University of Northern Colorado. After working for about five years as a meteorologist, he decided to pursue a master’s degree in environmental science with a focus on hydrology and water security. He borrowed another $21,000 for his first year in the master’s program and will have to borrow more for the final year.

It was the pandemic that made him reevaluate his life plan and go to graduate school. But he also believes the second degree has helped him land his dream job working for the National Weather Service, which he starts this month.

“I definitely don’t regret the choices I made to get where I am,” Enriquez said. But he is frustrated with what college has cost him and other people from low- and middle-class families.

Enriquez said his parents couldn’t afford to help him pay for college. As immigrants from Mexico, they were unfamiliar with America’s higher education system. But Enriquez felt he needed to go to a four-year college to get ahead. He wanted to go to a state school but was wait-listed and landed at a more expensive school out of state instead.

“I get aggravated when people say, ‘You shouldn’t have signed up for these loans.’ We have no choice. We either stay in the same class, in the same low-paying job or gather all this debt so we can at least be able to have more flexibility in our lives,” Enriquez said.

“I applaud everyone who’s able to pay off their student loans, but one person’s circumstances should not dictate the response for providing relief,” he said.

Enriquez hopes Biden cancels some student debt, but also acknowledges that wouldn’t lower the cost of college for future students and that more has to be done to address college affordability.

If Biden doesn’t cancel some student debt, he thinks his debt relief will finally come in 10 years thanks to the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program, which he will qualify for in his new job.

Photographer, social media consultant: $7,000 in student loan debt

Heather Daenitz, 33, did everything she possibly could to avoid taking on student loan debt — but ultimately had to borrow $18,000 for her last year of school.

Daenitz started at community colleges in California before transferring to a four-year university. She opted to take online courses when she could because they were less expensive. At times, she stopped going to school so she could work full time and save up money and also worked multiple jobs while taking classes — including positions as a veterinarian tech assistant, a campus tour guide and at a wine tasting room on the weekends.

After nearly six years of taking courses at community colleges, Daenitz enrolled at Oregon State University for a degree in horticulture with a focus on viticulture and enology — the study of grape cultivation and winemaking. She hoped to enroll at California Polytechnic State University to take advantage of in-state tuition but wasn’t accepted into the viticulture program there.

“My parents raised us to be fairly money-conscious because we weren’t well off as a family. They taught us to do things differently. I didn’t know any different. I thought it was weird people would go straight to a four-year college,” Daenitz recalled.

By the time she made it to her final year at Oregon State University, Daenitz had no choice but to take out student loans. Her federal Pell grant had been exhausted and one small remaining scholarship covered the cost of her books. She borrowed about $18,000 in federal student loans — the maximum she was allowed — and put the remainder on a credit card. Daenitz and her now-husband relied on food stamps that year.

After working for a vineyard management company she eventually launched her own business, Craft and Cluster, a photography and social media consulting company focused on the wine industry.

Daenitz has been paying off her debt for almost seven years, and continued to make payments during the pandemic-related pause. She has about $7,000 in student loan debt remaining.

“We have the money. I could pay this off if cancellation doesn’t come,” Daenitz said.

“But it’s the principle of the thing. It shouldn’t be this expensive to get an education. I shouldn’t have to work three jobs to pay for community college,” she added.

If Biden cancels some student debt, Daenitz and her husband will put the money they would save toward a down payment on a home.

“I don’t ever regret getting my degree. But I think it’s really frustrating that the only option for me to get it was to take out student loans,” she said.

Sales professional: $90,000 in student loan debt

Michelle Wineberg, 46, has about $90,000 in student loan debt and fully expects to borrow more money so that her daughter doesn’t have to take out student loans.

“I know how hard it is as a person starting out, and I didn’t want my daughter to be in debt as well. I wanted her to concentrate on school and not have to worry about the pressures of debt and income,” Wineberg said.

Her daughter — who just finished her freshman year — receives a scholarship, but Wineberg is covering the remaining cost with a federal Parent PLUS loan.

Wineberg, a single mom, went to college as an adult as a way to advance her career. She first earned an associate degree in business in 2010 and then finished a bachelor’s degree in computer networks and security with a minor cybersecurity in 2017 from the University of Maryland. She took out federal student loans to cover the entire cost of those degrees.

“Unfortunately I didn’t have any other choice. When you go as an adult it’s really hard to get scholarships and things like that. But I just knew it was something I always wanted to do and needed to do and of course wanted to be a role model for my kids,” Wineberg said.

Wineberg doesn’t regret getting her education. But she was expecting to get a job in the cybersecurity field more quickly. At first she took some time job hunting. Then the Covid-19 pandemic hit and she found many employers froze hiring. Plus, many of the jobs she’s applying for require a government security clearance — an approval process that takes time. She also can’t afford to take a lower-paying job than she has now in order to get her foot in the door. She’s still looking for a new job while continuing to work in sales.

If Biden canceled some student debt, Winberg said “it would be exhilarating.”

“Even though I have a lot, I would say any amount at this point would just lighten your shoulders a little bit and create a little light at the end of the tunnel,” she added.

But she also hopes for some changes that make the higher education system more affordable, especially for people who don’t have families that can support them financially. It would have really helped her, she said, if more employers offered tuition assistance.

“I would never tell someone not to go to college. But you really need a whole village to navigate the system. It’s a struggle to get through all the red tape and the paperwork,” Wineberg said.

Professor, playwright: $27,000 in student loan debt

“It’s this mountain that just feels so impossible to climb,” said Will Carter, 32, who has $27,000 in student loan debt left after borrowing more than $40,000 for a bachelor’s degree and two master’s degrees.

Carter’s education journey took several turns, starting with a car accident in high school that left him with a brain injury. The accident happened the day before he was set to retake the SAT, hoping to achieve a score high enough to get into Wake Forest University for an international relations degree.

His plans changed after the accident and Carter decided to pursue a playwriting degree from a small private college called Oglethorpe University with a merit-based scholarship that covered some of the cost.

But he didn’t make the decision without weighing the risk that a playwriting career may not pay off.

“I was meeting with my youth pastor and I was like, ‘I just feel really called to do the playwriting thing. I’m just scared to do this because there’s this thing called money,'” Carter recalled.

The pastor, he said, helped him decide to take the playwriting path. He later attended Boston University for a master’s degree in playwriting, with half of the cost covered by a merit-based scholarship.

But Carter’s dream eventually changed again after he discovered a love for teaching. He got a job teaching high school while pursuing a master’s in education at the University of Louisville. The state of Kentucky covered most of the cost of that degree since he was teaching at the same time.

It wasn’t easy juggling both school and work while still dealing with some side effects from his accident including fatigue, some focus and attention issues, and short-term memory problems. He walks with a cane, doesn’t drive and was also more recently diagnosed with a heart condition.

Carter, now an English professor, has been making payments monthly under an income-driven repayment plan and could possibly receive relief from the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program after making 10 years of payments since he works for a nonprofit university. But his wife also has some student loan debt. They have one young daughter, a baby on the way and are looking for a house bigger than the two-bedroom apartment they currently rent.

“We’re trying to buy a house. It’s very hard,” Carter said. “I’m not able to get approved for as much as I’d like because my total debt is about half my yearly income,” he added.

Carter said it would make the search for a house easier if Biden canceled $10,000 per borrower.

“Just to have that little bit of breathing room would mean so much. I think that would open us up to get a place,” he said.

IT support specialist: $150,000 in student loan debt

Blake Goddard, 45, does not want to see anyone take the same educational path he took, which has left him with more than $150,000 in student loan debt.

Seeking a technical degree, Goddard enrolled in a network communications management program at a DeVry University campus in Missouri. He saw an advertisement for the for-profit school and, after he and his parents met with a school recruiter, they decided it was the best route for him at the time.

“We didn’t really discuss financials. I’m 20 years old at the time, I could not comprehend the cost,” Goddard recalls.

He finished his bachelor’s degree with about $86,000 in student loan debt. He worked two part-time jobs during college, which mostly helped pay the rent and his medical bills after being diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes.

Upon graduating, Goddard decided he needed a master’s degree in information systems management to land a higher-paying job in the information technology industry. He borrowed roughly $44,000 more for the master’s degree from DeVry University.

“I’m looking at my debt, and I’m looking at the competition and I’m thinking if I go ahead and get my master’s degree, I will be that much more marketable,” Goddard recalls.

Ultimately, Goddard thinks his education was good — but not worth the cost. Most of his jobs have been temporary contract positions that offer low pay and poor health insurance. He sees co-workers who opted for getting lower-cost IT industry certifications rather than a four-year degree.

“Knowing what I know now, I would have got my certifications, possibly spend $3,000 and maybe be in the same position as I am now — or much better off,” Goddard said.

The debt is a heavy burden on him and his wife, who have held off on buying a home and starting a family. If Biden does cancel $10,000 of student loan debt per borrower, Goddard said he would be happy for those it would help but it would be a “drop in the bucket” for him.

“It wouldn’t change my position enough to really matter,” he added.

Earlier this year, the US Department of Education canceled debt for about 1,800 former DeVry students because it found that it had misled prospective students from 2008 to 2015 by falsely advertising that 90% of its graduates found jobs in their fields of study within six months of graduation. But Goddard, to his knowledge, doesn’t qualify for debt relief.

“I owe this. I was stupid enough to fall for this. I’m going to pay it back — it’s my responsibility,” he said.

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