The justices of the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments last week in a case that could impact more than 1.5 million people in Illinois with student debt. At issue is the legal standing of President Joe Biden’s loan forgiveness program, which would cancel up to $20,000 in debt for borrowers earning less than $125,000 a year.
Before the program got held up in court in November, Illinois residents applied in droves.
According to newly released data from the federal education department, the three congressional districts with the highest response rates in the nation were in Illinois. More than 70% of eligible borrowers in the 5th, 6th, and 8th Congressional districts, all located in the Chicago area, applied for or automatically qualified for debt relief.
The stakes for the outcome of the Supreme Court case are high for these borrowers, especially for those who are Black and, according to research, carry the heaviest student debt burden.
A report from the Education Data Initiative showed that Black college graduates owe an average $25,000 more in student loan debt than white college graduates. If the court upholds the federal debt relief program, borrowers who were eligible for Pell grants, designated for students with the greatest financial need, would receive $20,000 in loan cancellation. Non-Pell grant eligible students can receive up to $10,000 in loan relief.
Brittani Williams, a higher education researcher with the Education Trust, a Washington D.C.- based advocacy group, said Black borrowers are disproportionately impacted by student debt because of the lack of generational wealth in their communities resulting from systemic racism.
“If we had the wealth to pay for college, I don’t think that we would have borrowed the money in such great numbers,” Williams said. “People have to borrow, to persist in the [hopes] of upward economic mobility.”
Williams said oftentimes for Black borrowers, including herself, pursuing higher education offers the best chance at a better quality of life for themselves and their families.
“As an undergraduate student, a student loan borrower, a Pell Grant recipient identifying as a first generation student, from a single parent home — this degree was not just for me,” Williams said. “I’m the oldest sibling and so this degree was for me, and my siblings. And while I worked three and four jobs at a time, I sent money back home to my siblings.”
Unfortunately, she said, student debt often gets in the way of upward economic mobility, even for those who complete their degrees and perhaps earn higher salaries. Loan and interest payments make it harder for borrowers to save or even cover basic needs, especially as economic conditions have increased the cost of food, rent and child care.
Critics of the debt relief program say that it is too expensive. The Congressional Budget Office estimates the price tag to be about $400 billion. Others believe degree earners do not need to have their debts relieved. Still others view debt forgiveness as a band-aid on a broken system.
Williams said it is just one small but meaningful piece of the college affordability puzzle.
“When you add that aspect of student loan debt, you could imagine the toll that it would take on someone’s mental health,” said Williams. “For those borrowers who get that relief, who also have other competing, very critical priorities, this could be just a huge thing.”
Borrowers must wait until the summer to find out if their debts will be canceled under the federal loan forgiveness program. That’s when the Supreme Court is expected to issue its ruling.
The case hinges on Biden’s use of legislation from 2003 to justify the program. The Heroes Act allows modifications to the student loan program to alleviate economic hardship as a result of a national emergency. White House officials have argued that the pandemic caused hardship for student loan borrowers and therefore warrants debt relief.