Why top Georgia Democrats are pushing Biden to forgive student debt

Gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams and some other leading Georgia Democrats are urging President Joe Biden to forgive at least a share of student loan debt. Miguel Martinez / miguel.martinezjimenez@ajc.com

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Gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams and some other leading Georgia Democrats are urging President Joe Biden to forgive at least a share of student loan debt. Miguel Martinez / miguel.martinezjimenez@ajc.com

After the ground-thumping music died down, Stacey Abrams took the stage in west Atlanta to congratulate dozens of teens on graduating from high school — and pledge she’ll find new ways to relieve their student debt if she’s elected governor.

“We know that affordability is an increasing issue in the state, but it’s a solvable problem,” Abrams said Monday. “And we don’t have to raise taxes to raise the quality of life in Georgia. All we have to do is spend our money right.”

While student loan debt has become a flashpoint among Democrats, the party’s top contenders in Georgia have unequivocally chosen sides.

Both Abrams and U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock want the White House to forgive some of the estimated $1.7 trillion in student debt in hopes that it would allow more students of color to attend college, boost the economy and narrow the racial wealth gap. So does U.S. Rep. Nikema Williams and other party leaders.

With a tight election looming, Democrats also believe it could give young, liberal Georgians disenchanted with President Joe Biden a reason to vote in November.

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Democratic gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams has urged President Joe Biden to take action to relieve student debt. She is also campaigning on promises to ease college costs in other ways, including implementing a needs-based scholarship program for Georgia’s colleges and universities. Miguel Martinez / miguel.martinezjimenez@ajc.com

Credit: Miguel Martinez

Democratic gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams has urged President Joe Biden to take action to relieve student debt. She is also campaigning on promises to ease college costs in other ways, including implementing a needs-based scholarship program for Georgia’s colleges and universities. Miguel Martinez / miguel.martinezjimenez@ajc.com

Credit: Miguel Martinez

Combined ShapeCaption
Democratic gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams has urged President Joe Biden to take action to relieve student debt. She is also campaigning on promises to ease college costs in other ways, including implementing a needs-based scholarship program for Georgia’s colleges and universities. Miguel Martinez / miguel.martinezjimenez@ajc.com

Credit: Miguel Martinez

Credit: Miguel Martinez

“I’m taking out serious loans, and I think they should be forgiven,” said Audrey Rich, a recent high school graduate from Rome who will soon attend Jacksonville State University.

“It’s going to be a significant factor in who I support,” Rich said. “You shouldn’t have to pay an arm and a leg just to get a good education.”

‘A Che Guevara T-shirt’

At the heart of the debate is a divide over how pricey the program would be — and how many of the nation’s 41 million student borrowers could be eligible.

U.S. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and his allies want Biden to cancel up to $50,000 in student debt, maintaining that easing the burden would free up more spending that would boost the economy. The average student loan debt for recent college graduates hovers around $30,000 per borrower.

Some key centrist Democrats counter that forgiving debt would disproportionately benefit wealthier families since most college debt belongs to more affluent households. They also fear it would require a complicated new bureaucracy to administer the relief.

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Gov. Brian Kemp is among Republican opponents to a proposal to forgive student debt, saying it would “saddle Georgia families with more runaway spending.” Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Gov. Brian Kemp is among Republican opponents to a proposal to forgive student debt, saying it  would “saddle Georgia families with more runaway spending.” Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

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Gov. Brian Kemp is among Republican opponents to a proposal to forgive student debt, saying it would “saddle Georgia families with more runaway spending.” Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Republican opponents frame the program as a desperate effort to pander to voters in a tough election cycle. Gov. Brian Kemp said it would “saddle Georgia families with more runaway spending,” while GOP U.S. Senate nominee Herschel Walker has also opposed the idea.

“Everyone who doesn’t already have a Che Guevara T-shirt and a ‘Vote Socialist’ bumper sticker on their Subaru knows that Biden has dragged America too far left, but it’s not enough for Stacey,” said Dan McLagan, a veteran GOP strategist. “She’s rattled, and that’s a bad look when you’re running for governor.”

The White House last month floated a more moderate proposal to cancel $10,000 in student debt per borrower that would be limited to Americans who earned less than $150,000 individually or $300,000 for married couples filing jointly.

That led to backlash from liberal advocates who called the proposal an ineffective half-measure. Wisdom Cole, the national director of the NAACP’s college division, said forgiving $10,000 in loans “will not break the chains” of generations of debt in the Black community.

No college ‘mortgage’

Warnock hasn’t specified how much he wants the program to cost, but he told Biden he should go beyond the $10,000 in loan forgiveness. At a recent Democratic gala, the first-term Democrat said the president should “take his pen and do what he can right now to forgive student debt.”

“He can do it. He can do it by executive action,” Warnock said. “And I’m going to push him to do it.”

The senator’s views are shaped by his own experience. He often jokes that he attended Morehouse College on a “full-faith” scholarship, depending on a Pell Grant and low-interest student loans to become the first member of his immediate family to graduate from college.

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U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock is pressing President Joe Biden to go beyond a plan he's considering to forgive $10,000 in student loan debt for borrower who meet certain income limits. “Our children should not have a mortgage before they get a mortgage,” Warnock said. “So I’m going to show up in the halls of Congress, show up at the White House, show up wherever our children and their lives are on the line.” (Nathan Posner for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Nathan Posner for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution

U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock is pressing President Joe Biden to go beyond a plan he's considering to forgive $10,000 in student loan debt for borrower who meet certain income limits. “Our children should not have a mortgage before they get a mortgage,” Warnock said. “So I’m going to show up in the halls of Congress, show up at the White House, show up wherever our children and their lives are on the line.” (Nathan Posner for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Nathan Posner for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Combined ShapeCaption
U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock is pressing President Joe Biden to go beyond a plan he's considering to forgive $10,000 in student loan debt for borrower who meet certain income limits. “Our children should not have a mortgage before they get a mortgage,” Warnock said. “So I’m going to show up in the halls of Congress, show up at the White House, show up wherever our children and their lives are on the line.” (Nathan Posner for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Nathan Posner for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Nathan Posner for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution

“Our children should not have a mortgage before they get a mortgage,” Warnock said. “So I’m going to show up in the halls of Congress, show up at the White House, show up wherever our children and their lives are on the line.”

Williams, who is both a U.S. House member and the chairwoman of the state Democratic Party, has introduced a trio of measures to relieve student debt and wipe default records clear of credit histories of borrowers who consolidated their student loans.

Abrams, too, has urged Biden to take swift action to relieve student debt. She campaigns on promises to ease college costs in other ways, including implementing a needs-based scholarship program for Georgia’s colleges and universities.

“When you’re finished, I want to make sure you have careers you are excited about,” she told the students, “careers that pay you enough to stay in the state of Georgia.”

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“We know that affordability is an increasing issue in the state, but it’s a solvable problem,” Democratic gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams told recent high school graduates. “And we don’t have to raise taxes to raise the quality of life in Georgia. All we have to do is spend our money right.” Miguel Martinez / miguel.martinezjimenez@ajc.com

Credit: Miguel Martinez

“We know that affordability is an increasing issue in the state, but it’s a solvable problem,” Democratic gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams told recent high school graduates. “And we don’t have to raise taxes to raise the quality of life in Georgia. All we have to do is spend our money right.” Miguel Martinez / miguel.martinezjimenez@ajc.com

Credit: Miguel Martinez

Combined ShapeCaption
“We know that affordability is an increasing issue in the state, but it’s a solvable problem,” Democratic gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams told recent high school graduates. “And we don’t have to raise taxes to raise the quality of life in Georgia. All we have to do is spend our money right.” Miguel Martinez / miguel.martinezjimenez@ajc.com

Credit: Miguel Martinez

Credit: Miguel Martinez