An inside look at how Supreme Court’s student loan ruling affects Georgians

Georgia’s student loan borrowers are doing homework on their options after the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent decision that struck down President Joe Biden’s plan to forgive up to $10,000 in federal student debt for those who earn less than $125,000 a year, and $20,000 for Pell Grant recipients.

The blocked proposal would have erased all student debt for some Georgians. For others here in the Peach State, where the average owed is nearly $42,000, it would have at least taken a bite out of their balance.

They’re now bracing for the return of federal student loan payments in October after a three-year pause, even as Biden said he’ll keep pushing for relief and more affordable repayment plans.

Some borrowers are sanguine about the looming loan payments. Others are anxious: Their finances are already strained. Many are teachers and there are Georgians who are nearing retirement.

Casting a shadow over them all is looming student loan payments.

Here are a few of the faces of the 1.6 million Georgians with student debt.

College interrupted

Kairos Richardson, 23, of Athens said a fear of accumulating more student loan debt led to a decision to drop out of Kennesaw State University about three years ago. (Courtesy of Kairos Richardson)

Credit: Kairos Richardson

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Credit: Kairos Richardson

Fear about mounting debt prompted Kairos Richardson to drop out of Kennesaw State University after the pandemic hit.

The 23-year-old from Athens owes roughly $8,000 in federal and personal loans, which he took out to go to school. He doesn’t have a diploma, and it’s been bittersweet watching his friends graduate.

“I want to be up there so bad,” Richardson said.

He’s now working irregular hours as a delivery driver, a necessity “to put food on my table.” Nearly a third of student loan borrowers have debt but no degree, according to the U.S. Department of Education.

While he had hoped the court would wipe out his federal student debt, the decision didn’t surprise him.

He said he won’t be able to afford the loan payments without finding a way to pick up more hours at work. That will give him less time to resume college classes. Richardson is exploring lower-cost options, such as enrolling in a nearby technical college.

“It definitely scares me,” he said. “I’m in a position where I already have bills not being paid.”

A teacher’s debt

Chelsea King, 26, graduated from Mercer University in May. She's also about to start a teaching job. (Courtesy of Chelsea King)

Credit: Chelsea King

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Credit: Chelsea King

Chelsea King is excited about becoming a teacher this fall.

But King, 26, who just graduated from Mercer University, said she’ll make less in her first year of teaching than the roughly $60,000 she owes in student loans.

As a Pell Grant recipient, King said she would have been eligible for up to $20,000 in debt relief under Biden’s proposal. That would have been “a great help,” she said, “especially going into education because y’all know we don’t get paid a lot.”

She expects to defer making loan payments while she goes to graduate school.

“Everybody in my family went to college, and everybody paid for college (with) either... a scholarship or a student loan,” she said. “I’ve seen how student loans affect your financial life.”

‘Very lucky’

Grethel Pedroarena, 44, is an Atlanta Public Schools teacher who took out student loans to pay for graduate school. (Courtesy of Grethel Pedroarena)

Credit: Grethel Pedroarena

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Credit: Grethel Pedroarena

Grethel Pedroarena, 44, used a portion of her student loans to pay for living expenses while working as a teacher and going to graduate school.

She completed her master’s degree in 2020 and a specialist in education program two years later, taking out about $60,000 in loans. Some of the money she borrowed went to bills and to supplement her teacher’s salary.

”I was very lucky that I was able to make it work and that I didn’t have to lose my house or go into any more debt than getting my education,” she said.

She’s borrowing more money as she pursues a doctorate at Georgia College & State University. Pedroarena, who lives in Cumming and teaches seventh graders in Atlanta Public Schools, said her salary will increase once she earns it.

Because she’s still taking classes, her loan payments won’t begin this fall. When she does start making payments, she expects to qualify for an affordable monthly amount based on her income and since she’s a single mother of four.

And after 10 years of payments, she hopes to get her remaining debt canceled through a federal public service loan forgiveness program.

“It’s not that I don’t want to pay. I obviously want to pay,” she said. “I hate thinking about the fact that I have a loan or a debt, but it’s nice to know that I can pay what I can pay.”

Mother, daughter college costs

Brandy McDonald-Johnson of Atlanta graduated from Georgia Southern University in 2020.

Credit: Brandy McDonald-Johnson

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Credit: Brandy McDonald-Johnson

Brandy McDonald-Johnson, 24, of Atlanta feels fortunate for her mom’s support in college and after.

Erica Washington McDonald, a 49-year-old teacher, was a graduate student at Kennesaw State University while her daughter was at Georgia Southern University.

“I was trying to get her to come through without having student loans,” McDonald said of her daughter. “I was paying cash as much as I could and trying to save her.”

Washington McDonald estimates she owes about $45,000 after earning her doctorate degree. She decided to teach summer school this year, partly to save up so she can resume loan payments this fall.

McDonald-Johnson, who graduated in 2020, estimates she owes roughly $8,000 in federal student loans, which would have been erased under Biden’s plan.

Her mom helped her pay off private loans.

McDonald-Johnson works in marketing and communications for Achieve Atlanta, the organization that gave her one of her college scholarships. She said she’ll be able to pay her monthly student loan bill, but it will mean she won’t grow her savings quite as quickly.

“The thing that, I think, people don’t talk about enough is what a loan is …; the gravity of the situation doesn’t really hit you until you’re actually borrowing that money,”

‘Complex’ college costs

Augustine Jimenez of Forest Park graduated from Boston University in 2020 and has about $4,500 in student loan debt. (Courtesy of Augustine Jimenez)

Credit: Augustine Jimenez

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Credit: Augustine Jimenez

Augustine Jimenez, 26, earned a full-tuition leadership scholarship to Boston University, and other awards, including need-based aid from the organization Achieve Atlanta, helped with room, board and other fees.

But even with scholarships, saving money and living frugally, Jimenez said he ended up taking out $4,500 in federal student loans.

“I still was unable to graduate debt-free just because of the way that financial aid can be so complex and college so expensive,” he said.

He returned to Georgia after graduating in 2020. His mom had lost her job when the pandemic hit, and Jimenez shelved his career goals to help out his family. He worked at Publix, at legal aid groups and then got a job at Achieve Atlanta, where he helps students with their scholarships.

He would have been eligible for full loan forgiveness, had the Supreme Court not struck down the relief plan. Instead, he’ll start chipping away at his debt, which he expects to pay off in a year.

On the day of the ruling, as Jimenez scrolled online, he saw people celebrate the court’s decision. That narrative, he said, villainizes “every day, working people.”

“It’s just people trying to work hard, pay off their loans,” he said. “It feels like a slap in the face.”

‘Path to freedom’

Simran Jadavji, who lives in North Druid Hills, graduated from the University of Georgia in 2019. She has about $29,000 in federal student loans. Her father also borrowed money to help pay for her education. (Courtesy of Simran Jadavji)

Credit: Simran Jadavji

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Credit: Simran Jadavji

Simran Jadavji, 26, would love to go to graduate school and some day buy a home.

But those goals seem out of reach. She’s worried about paying off the student loans she and her father took out while she was earning her 2019 bachelor’s degree from the University of Georgia.

Jadavji lives just outside Atlanta and has about $29,000 in student loans. Her father has more than $50,000 in Parent PLUS loans.

“You’re staring down the barrel of a number that you don’t know when in your life you’re ever going to tackle it,” said Jadavji.

She works in communications for the New Georgia Project, the Stacey Abrams-founded voter registration group that advocates for the cancellation of all student loan debt.

Jadavji believes both she and her father would have been eligible for $10,000 in relief had the Supreme Court not blocked the forgiveness plan. The decision didn’t shock her, but it did disappoint.

Her parents immigrated to the United States as teenagers from Tanzania. They instilled in her the importance of education as a “path to freedom.”

But she said paying for college is especially difficult for many Black and brown students whose families don’t have generational wealth.

The court’s ruling galvanized her to push for other solutions to relieve student debt.

“I think we can do better,” she said. “The clearest path forward at this point is an act of Congress. That is where our power lies.”