OPINION: Georgia student loan borrowers deserve a break

Activists rally outside the Department of Education in Washington on April 4, 2022, to call for student loan forgiveness. President Joe Biden faces heavy pressure from borrowers and progressive Democrats to reform the $1.6 trillion federal student loan system. In late July, students representing 11 colleges in Georgia traveled to Washington to rally at the White House. (Kenny Holston/The New York Times)

Combined ShapeCaption
Activists rally outside the Department of Education in Washington on April 4, 2022, to call for student loan forgiveness. President Joe Biden faces heavy pressure from borrowers and progressive Democrats to reform the $1.6 trillion federal student loan system. In late July, students representing 11 colleges in Georgia traveled to Washington to rally at the White House. (Kenny Holston/The New York Times)

Average college debt of more than $41,000 is among highest in U.S.

On Thursday, students representing 11 universities in Georgia boarded a bus bound for Washington with a clear message for President Joe Biden: Cancel student loan debt.

The group, comprised of students, organizers and staffers from the New Georgia Project and the NAACP Georgia Youth & College Division, planned to spend the weekend rallying outside the White House and the U.S. Department of Education, moving the plea for student debt relief from social media to the streets.

Student loan activists in Georgia are seizing the moment to hold Biden to his campaign promise to forgive student loan debt. While at the nation’s capital, student organizers planned to meet with U.S. Rep. David Scott as well as U.S. Rep Nikema Williams who earlier this year introduced the Student Loan Rehabilitation and Credit Score Improvement Act.

Among the students to make the trip was Jayden Williams, a sophomore at Clark Atlanta University and college president of the NAACP Georgia. Williams emphasized how important it is for student to use their voting power in the upcoming midterm election. “We have to show up in person to show that if Georgia can put you in one time, we can take you out the next time,” he said.

Student loan payments have been suspended since March 2020 and are scheduled to resume Sept. 1. The Biden administration must now decide whether to extend the payment pause and, more importantly, create a pathway to loan forgiveness.

With an average loan debt of $41,639 per borrower, Georgia ranks among the worst states for student debt. Based on data from Education Data Initiative, only Maryland and the District of Columbia have higher averages. Student loan debt affects roughly 15% of Georgians, who owe a combined $68.6 billion.

“Biden is promising to cancel $10,000 and that is not even one semester at Clark Atlanta University, which starts at $18,000 per semester,” said Williams. “As an organization, we are calling for $50,000 in debt relief.”

A national poll by the Institute of Politics at Harvard Kennedy School released in April indicated that 85% of young Americans favor some form of government action on student loan debt, with 38% favoring total debt cancellation.

But with a sharp increase in youth feeling that “political involvement rarely has tangible results” (36%), their vote “doesn’t make a difference” (42%), and “politics today are no longer able to meet the challenges our country is facing” (56%), the current administration needs to take decisive action on the things that matter most to this voting bloc.

“For decades the standing line out of this country to its citizens is that you don’t have a future if you don’t get a college degree,” said Paul Glaze, an organizer for the New Georgia Project. But there is a tendency to whitewash the impact of student loan debt, he said. “Black women are making 67 cents to every white man. It is not surprising that after 10 years the majority of white borrowers have paid off their debt,” Glaze said.

Melissa Byrne, who created a space for present and future loan borrowers to fight for loan forgiveness, thinks the lengthy suspension of loan repayments is a good sign that Biden’s administration is listening and thinking critically about the issue.

“If he wasn’t going to take significant action, which is cancelation, he would have just turned (loans) back on the first day he took office,” said Byrne who grew up in a single-parent household. Her mother worked at Denny’s until finding a better job with better benefits. Byrne always knew she would go to college, but it meant assuming a lot of debt.

When she had trouble repaying her loan after graduating, she called the loan company multiple times to negotiate repayment terms. Ultimately, she defaulted on the loan.

Byrne is hardly an outlier. One out of every 10 Americans has defaulted on a student loan, and 7.8% of all student loan debt is in default, according to Education Data Initiative.

With more than $60,000 in student loan debt, 24-year-old Mary Pat Hector is concerned that she will not be able to build long-term wealth. The Spelman College graduate who is earning a master’s degree from Georgia State University said that a college education should not burden students for the rest of their lives. “College should do what it was meant to do, which is change the trajectory of their lives,” she said.

If Biden signs off on loan debt forgiveness, particularly with a policy that takes income levels into account, it should push lawmakers and institutions to enact comprehensive higher education financing reforms.

Read more on the Real Life blog (www.ajc.com/opinion/real-life-blog/) and find Nedra on Facebook (www.facebook.com/AJCRealLifeColumn) and Twitter (@nrhoneajc) or email her at nedra.rhone@ajc.com.