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Photograph of Tonya Geans, Dr. Renee Poole and Lawrence Lewitinn on a background with fading one dollar bills and graduation caps
Money; Getty Images; Portraits from left: Courtesy of Tonya Geans; Courtesy of Dr. Renee Poole; Lawrence Lewitinn Photographed by Karen Wise

Every once in a while, I think about how my life could have been different if I’d made slightly different decisions. A born and bred New Yorker, I stayed in the city for college, but moved to Berlin immediately after and became a freelance journalist. Many things made my transatlantic move and relatively risky career path possible, but one specific jumps out: I went to college for free, so I didn’t have any student debt.

Americans may find this game familiar, although many of them play it in the other direction. Saddled with student loans, they dream about all the things the money could buy that they simply have to go without: a home of their own, a new car, a family.

Roughly 43 million Americans collectively hold $1.7 trillion of student debt. That means 1 in every 8 Americans has a story about student debt, and their experiences color their feelings on the issue profoundly, even as awareness has grown on the national stage. Politicians like Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren have made the issue central to their campaigns, helping push it into the mainstream of the Democratic Party. President Biden has even said he supports canceling some student debt, although the amount and specifics have changed since he took office.

But even as Americans unite over the certainty that student debt is a problem, opinions differ as to how to solve it. Polls find that anywhere from 45% to 60% of Americans support loan forgiveness, depending on the amount that'd be cancelled.

Progressives often focus on the economic impact of forgiving debt: the extra money in people’s bank accounts would be equivalent to a monthly stimulus check, they argue. Some Americans claim student debt forgiveness is a moral hazard, favoring certain classes of people, or rewarding profligate spending or degrees in impractical subjects. Some aren’t sure erasing it will do anything to solve the real problem: the rising cost of a college education.

To Dr. Renee M. Poole, student loans represent educational opportunities that may otherwise be out of reach. But they also are a reinforcement of economic gaps between white and Black Americans, men and women, and especially women of color and everyone else. Dr. Poole has an M.D. from Saint Louis University School of Medicine and a master's in medical management from University of Southern California. She paid off her $250,000 student loans just last year.

“I lived below my means. I was not focused on the new car or the new house. But I also took advantage of loan repayment programs for those that had a passion to work in underserved communities,” she said, explaining that she received money to repay her debts from a non-profit organization based in southern California, where she now lives and works.

Poole spoke about traveling more, now that she’s out of debt, and focusing on her long-delayed retirement plan. Despite many years of going without certain luxuries herself, she was adamant that others should be able to pursue their educational goals worry-free and even debt-free.

“If there is a way individuals can be supported by having loan forgiveness programs, I am absolutely in favor of that, because loan forgiveness programs have helped me," she says.

Tonya Geans’s student debt story intersects with that of her son, who wound up hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt. According to her, he stayed in school to postpone repayment, earning a bachelor’s and two master’s degrees.

“He became an adult student,” she says, “and that’s kind of the way this system is set up. The fear is that when you stop being a student, that’s when the debt starts.”

Geans, 44, found herself doubly in debt after her son passed away, with her own student loans and the loans she believed she had inherited from him. But one of these was a Parent PLUS loan — a federal loan taken out by parents of undergraduates on their child’s behalf. It was only after participating on a panel about student debt that she finally learned this loan would be forgiven. All told, she has paid back $4,000 of $31,000 in student loans.

Beyond her experience with her own debt and that of her son, Geans also sees firsthand how debt can hold others back. Through her work as a grant researcher at the helm of Geans Management Group, an organization that helps small businesses, she knows that student loans can be a deterrent to banks looking to lend to small business owners.

The student debt process can seem too easy at the beginning, Geans says, but leads to so many problems down the road: “Student loans are like magic. A few signatures — ‘here, sign this, and done!' That’s the fear I have for generations to come: them not being educated on the future financial impact.”

Danielle Hayden, 33, received an academic scholarship for her undergraduate degree at the University of Michigan, but took out a small loan to pay for housing. She then went on to graduate school at Harvard University, for which she took out a substantial loan. To date, she’s paid back $15,000 of her $70,000 worth of loans.

“Lowering interest rates, or eliminating them altogether, and having more reasonable monthly payments are laudable goals, but I have mixed feelings about student debt being canceled altogether,” she explained. She compared student loan providers to banks offering credit cards, reasoning that neither of them forces Americans into loans, and yet both receive similar ire from those who have gone into debt.

“Forgiving student debt would be the compassionate thing to do, but that's not the same thing as saying I believe the government owes me debt forgiveness," she says. "No one forced me to sign those papers.”

Her contention is more widespread than many Americans might admit. The idea that student loans are taken on voluntarily, to pay for something that is certainly not a must, makes it difficult for some Americans to see their way toward removing them altogether. Wouldn’t forgiving student loans, the thinking goes, somehow encourage more people to take them on? Wouldn’t debt forgiveness give colleges the green light to further inflate their already high tuition prices?

Fundamentally, this is a question about what a college degree is even worth anymore. If education doesn’t usher you toward a specific career, income or lifestyle, and it doesn’t even guarantee enough earnings to cover the debt, then it can seem like an unworthy investment. The question, of course, is whether students can be expected to know all this, and whether knowing it, they can be blamed for borrowing anyway.

Lawrence Lewitinn, 48, a financial journalist based out of New Jersey and specializing in cryptocurrencies, paid his way through college at New York University by working multiple jobs, using as many Advanced Placement courses as possible to earn early college credits, and doubling up on classes so he could finish school for three years instead of four.

“You hustle,” he commented. “It’s called being an adult. You’re expected to go to war, you’re expected to vote, you should be expected to know what you’re getting into when it comes to tuition.”

He took out and subsequently paid back student loans for two graduate degrees, and he attributes this to a pragmatic financial calculation early on. “I looked at the debt and modeled it out and said, ‘okay, if I make $5,000 or $10,000 more because of my graduate degrees, will it pay for itself?’” He wonders what signal it will send to those like him, who are now in the clear, if all that debt magically disappears.

He’s also worried about another side effect of debt forgiveness. “Future students are going to have a miserable life," he says. "Their rates will go up and universities will find other ways to stick it to them.”

The answer, he maintains, is to incentivize universities to reign in their costs, make vocational schools more attractive to students, and really encourage future generations to think about what they want out of an education; something he’s already planning to do with his own two young children.

Americans may disagree over details of how to help student loan borrowers, but according to Seth Frotman, executive director of the Student Borrower Protection Center, a non-profit advocacy organization, “it's clear that student debt is absolutely a crisis.” As the former assistant director and student loan ombudsman for the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, Frotman has traveled the country and seen firsthand how people are affected.

He’s also quick to point out just how much race is involved: “When you look at the impact of student debt across major American cities, you see an uncanny and unfortunate resemblance to red-lining with delinquencies and default.”

A recent Harvard Business School study emphasized just how much student debt inhibits individual Americans. The study found that borrowers who had their debts forgiven were 30% more likely to change jobs, often landing higher-paying jobs, suggesting that debt had been holding them back from taking a career risk that eventually paid off. Those who had their loans forgiven were also able to begin paying back other debts, reducing them by 26%, and making long-delayed purchases, like a new car. All this points to a significant jump in the U.S. economy.

Perhaps, in the end, this is how most Americans will be convinced: those who have seen their own finances stagnate will comprehend how loan forgiveness scales up to affect everyone else, whereas those who never experienced the struggle of monthly loan payments may still recognize how it hurts the economy, and thus hurts them. Then it’s no longer a game of imagining how your life would change if you weren’t weighed down by student loans, but instead how the country’s future might change if more people could say the same.

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