Courtesy of Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System

On Tuesday, student loan borrowers and elected officials gathered over Zoom to discuss the burden that student loan debt has placed on their communities and call on national leaders to cancel student loan debt.

The New Haven-based Student Loan Fund Borrower’s Collective was founded in October 2019 with the goal of canceling student loan debt. Since then, the group has grown to include residents from other Connecticut cities and has taken up other demands, such as making public colleges free for all. On Tuesday, the Borrower’s Collective held a virtual Call to Action meeting to share testimonies from borrowers who owe thousands of dollars in debt. Connecticut Attorney General William Tong and State Senator Matt Lesser, D-Middletown, joined activists in calling for student loan debt cancellation. They also agreed to support other demands the group made, such as funding a state office to resolve loan complaints and compiling data of Connecticut for-profit colleges that use predatory lending practices.

“The Student Loan Fund Borrower’s Collective advocates on behalf of nearly half a million Connecticut residents, who collectively owe more than $16 billion in student debt,” activist Calvin Rodriguez said at Tuesday’s event. “We are working to change the predatory lending systems and practices, which negatively impact us, our families and our communities so that others don’t have to face this unjust burden.”

Speakers at the event talked about their own experiences with debt and explained the issue’s connection to racial justice.

Ratasha Smith, a New Haven resident, is a member of the Borrower’s Collective who currently owes $105,000 in student loan debt. She told attendees that she had always planned to attend college. She ended up attending Bennett College, which she described as an “oasis.” She explained that she had to pay $23,000 a year to attend the university, taking out loans to pay her tuition bill. A few years into her college career, she took a leave of absence to work at McDonalds and eventually returned to school thanks in part to more student loan money. Smith said that her student loan debt still looms over her to this day and that only “divine intervention” or legislative action could provide her with the relief that she needs.

New Havener Amelia Sherwood, a member of the Borrower’s Collective and the Anti-Bias, Anti-Racism Director at Elm City Montessori School, currently owes about $120,000 in student loan debt. On Tuesday’s call, Sherwood recounted how she felt pressure to go to college because she saw it as “a ticket to success and wealth.” She said that while she graduated from Lincoln University, an HBCU near Oxford, Pennsylvania, she was not prepared to handle the financial obligations of attending college. After graduation, she took a job at a daycare center that paid only $26,000 per year, making it difficult for her to pay off her outstanding debt. In 2014, Sherwood became pregnant and went back to school to get her master’s degree so that she could make more money to sustain her newborn child, she said. However, the job she secured after obtaining her master’s paid her only $4,000 more per year, so she fell further into debt. Her experience pushed her to support the cancellation of all student loan debt.

Clancy Emanuel, another member of the Borrower’s Collective, used to owe about $80,000 in debt, though he has since reduced that amount to $15,000. He discussed the connection between student loan debt and racial justice at Tuesday’s meeting.

“Out of the 45 million people with student debt, Black women are carrying the heaviest debt burdens,” Emanuel said. “Cancelling student debt is a social justice issue, be a radical interrupter and cancel student debt.”

Emanuel said that research indicates that people of color carry more student loan debt than their white counterparts with an even level of education. After 20 years of loan repayment, the median white borrower has paid back 94 percent of their student debt, while the median Black borrower has only paid back five percent, Emanuel said. He also pointed to a figure from the Brookings Institute that suggests that a few years after graduation, Black student loan borrowers on average owe $25,000 more in student loan debt than their white counterparts.

Speakers argued that the student loan debt crisis merits government action. Some acknowledged that while the political challenge is immense, the Borrower’s Collective membership and allies can help make debt cancellation a reality.

Despite growing support among progressive sectors of the Democratic Party, President Joe Biden has not committed to canceling all student loan debt. The president has backed a proposal to cancel up to $10,000 in student loan debt and eliminate interest. But that may soon change — last week, Biden asked Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona to prepare a memo about the legality of canceling up to $50,000 in student loan debt through executive action.

Urged by the Borrower’s Collective to support the group’s efforts to reduce predatory lending and hold a press conference to bring awareness to their plight, Tong told those in attendance that the movement for student loan debt relief has his full support.

“You have my commitment that I will continue to be engaged in [relief for student loan borrowers],” Tong said. “We are chasing — have chased — a bunch of for-profit schools, we had a discussion about some for-profit schools and problematic schools in Connecticut.”

Tong added that he has taken action to help student loan borrowers. On Tuesday, Tong and Attorney Generals from 23 other states and the District of Columbia urged the Department of Education to forgive student loan debt connected to ITT Technical Institute, a now-defunct chain of for-profit colleges. Tong has also previously called on President Biden to cancel up to $50,000 in student loan debt.

Lesser agreed to separate demands from the Borrower’s Collective on Tuesday. The Middletown-area State Senator promised to introduce a bill to end the practice of withholding student transcripts and degrees because of debt and develop a strategy to ensure Connecticut colleges are using outstanding COVID-19 relief aid to cancel debt. Lesser also backed the group’s call to fund the state’s Student Loan Ombudsman — an office that helps resolve student loan debt complaints — and cancel all student loan debt via executive action from President Biden.

The Borrower’s Collective concluded its call by urging attendees to sign the organization’s petition, call their local representatives to express their support for student loan debt cancellation, email the White House and share those action items with their friends.

The Federal Reserve estimates that Americans owed more than $1.7 trillion in student loan debt in the last quarter of 2020.

Christian Robles | christian.robles@yale.edu

CHRISTIAN ROBLES
Christian Robles covers education & youth services. He is a sophomore in Davenport College studying Political Science and Economics.