People mad about Joe Biden's student debt forgiveness plan need to get over themselves.
Credit: George Danby / BDN

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Robin Epley is an opinion writer for The Sacramento Bee.       

I attended an extremely poor, extremely diverse high school in Sacramento where we were constantly told that attending college was the only way to pull ourselves out of poverty and reach the middle class. But the only way to afford the ridiculous cost of even community college or a state university was via loans so predatory that they all but ensured we would never be able to pull ourselves out of debt.

President Joe Biden’s plan, announced Wednesday, is to cancel up to $20,000 of that debt (or at least $10,000 of it for most of us). That’s an incredible gift that will change millions of lives forever.

Now let’s cancel the rest of it.

Tuition long ago outstripped students’ ability to pay, with many schools adding amenities that have nothing to do with education. According to the Pew Research Center, the share of students taking out loans to finance their degrees rose from 49 percent to 69 percent between 1993 to 2012. Between 1993 and 2020, the average loan amount grew nearly three times over, surpassing $30,000.

Until very recently, I owed more than $35,000 in federal student loans I took out to attend California State University at Chico, even after 10 years of trying to pay them off. The only way I was able to pay off these loans was through the generational wealth gained through my family’s white privilege.

Before that unexpected windfall, after the untimely death of a relative, I too was stuck in the deepening pit of never-ending student loan payments, with a disastrous credit score and no way out. Paying off my student debt gave me the ability to start putting money in my savings account and ultimately buy a home.

That’s because student loan debt — approximately 90 percent of which is composed of federal loans, like mine — carries interest rates ranging from 4.99 percent to 7.54 percent. That’s regardless of work ethic or good or bad choices; student loans are a failing system that, in effect, makes upward mobility much harder.

I took out five years of federal loans. The first year I borrowed around $4,000, and had enough left over for all of my textbooks besides. By the time I was a fifth-year senior, the debt had ballooned to more than $7,000 and would barely cover CSU’s rising tuition.

I had to ask my parents for help with housing because nothing was left over. I left college with approximately $27,000 in debt, which became nearly $45,000 at one point, thanks to interest rates that insured I would likely never make a payment toward my principal amount.

At one point soon after graduation, I calculated that my interest rate was tacking on an additional $5 per day. That’s an additional $1,800 per year, during a time in my life when I was living paycheck to paycheck. I could hardly afford to pay the rent and buy groceries at the same time, much less pay back hundreds in debt repayments every month. The financial stress I was under was a major factor in ratcheting up the anxiety and depression with which I still struggle.

A 2017 study by Prudential Financial Inc. found that 55 percent of student loan debtors say their debt prevents or forces them to delay saving for emergencies, 42 percent said they have delayed buying a home because of it and 40 percent said their debt prevents or forces them to delay retirement savings. At least a fifth of respondents said they have delayed getting married or having children because of their student loan debt.

I recognize how incredibly lucky I am to have had my student loans paid off, but it is the perfect symbol of what it means to be a middle-class (and often white) college student: My family paid them off for me. Without that assistance, I would never have been able to do that, and would still be drowning in debt and tanking both my credit score and my mental health.

And even though I would have benefited from Biden’s plan, I still want my classmates and others — more than 43 million Americans — to have their loans forgiven.

None of us “did it the right way” — we simply won at a rigged game.

At the least, we must release students and their families from interest rates so high that they make it impossible to ever pay off the initial amount.