Flanked by two borrowers who are drowning in student loan debt, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Rep. James Clyburn (D-S.C.) announced legislation July 23 to forgive student loan debt for them and tens of thousands of others and, at the same time, help close the wealth gap between white students and students of color.
“Student loan debt in this nation has reached crisis proportions,” says Warren, citing the $1.5 trillion total student debt in the United States and the 45 million borrowers affected. These borrowers “really get caught in an America that says you need a post-high school education to get a ticket into America’s middle class, but the cost of that education has shot through the roof and you’re pretty much on your own.”
Warren and Clyburn have proposed legislation, known as the Student Loan Debt Relief Act, that would eliminate up to $50,000 in student loan debt for individuals who earn less than $100,000 a year. It would provide relief to 95 percent of student loan borrowers and cancel student debt entirely for 75 percent of borrowers. Relief would be available to those who earn up to $250,000 as well, in incrementally smaller amounts. The legislation mirrors Warren’s campaign platform on student debt.
For Jorge Brito, who spoke at the press conference announcing the legislation, this sort of policy would be life-changing. Brito’s working-class parents never attended college, so no one in his family understood how heavy the debt burden would be when he signed up for his loans. “I had a lot of faith in the federal loan program,” he says. “I felt sure that I would soon be earning enough to pay back my student loans. I was fulfilling the dreams of my parents and believed that I’d be treated fairly in repaying my loans.”
The truth was that his loans were too high and his pay as a teacher in Philadelphia would have been too low to keep up with payments. It would have been no better than what he made as a bike courier.
Brito finished his master’s in education, but when he realized he wouldn’t be able to pay back his loans as a teacher, he left the profession before he even got started. He would consider returning if he didn’t have student debt payments to worry about. “My wife and I, combined, owe a minimum payment of $750 a month, and it puts a significant strain on our lives,” he says. Without it, they could care for his ailing father, consider growing their family, provide for their 6-month-old son’s education and contribute to their community. “The Student Loan Debt Relief Act would be a lifeline,” says Brito.
Warren says she and Clyburn introduced the legislation not just to relieve people like Brito but to help close the racial wealth gap. “The average black student loan borrower owes more money 12 years after graduation than he or she did when they left school,” she says. “This is crushing an entire generation. It says if you’re lucky enough to be born into families that can write a check for tuition, you’re on one path, and for everyone else, you’re just going to get loaded under a pile of debt.” The Warren-Clyburn plan would shrink that gap by 25 points, she says.
A new report from the NAACP and the Center for Responsible Lending shows that about 85 percent of African American graduates take out loans for college, compared with 69 percent of white students, and nearly half owe more on their loans four years after graduation than they did when they received their degrees.
“Higher education should be a pathway to upward mobility, yet student debt feels like a ball and chain around our necks,” says Ashley Gray, who is about to receive a Ph.D. from Howard University. “The massive amount of debt my education has created often casts a shadow on my accomplishments.” She also worries that debt will keep her from starting a family, owning a home, or providing an education for her future children. “If Wall Street and wealthy people can have a tax cut in the amount of $1.5 trillion,” she says, referring to President Trump’s tax plan, “Why can’t everyday Americans? We so desperately need that.”
“I believe very strongly that we have got to arrest this cancer that is growing on the lives of our young people,” says Clyburn.
Click here to watch the press conference.