Student debt relief advocates gather outside the Supreme Court on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, Feb. 28, 2023.. Arguments at the Supreme Court over President Joe Biden's student debt cancellation left some borrowers feeling isolated as they heard such a personal subject reduced to cold legal language. Credit: Patrick Semansky / AP

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Susan Young is the Bangor Daily News opinion editor.

Court cases are, by their nature, typically dry affairs where small points of law are debated as part of larger issues. So, it was with arguments over President Joe Biden’s student loan forgiveness plan, which was challenged by several states and a couple students.

The U.S. Supreme Court held oral arguments this week in two cases challenging the forgiveness plan. The justices asked a lot of questions about standing — whether those challenging the law had grounds to argue that they were, in fact, injured by the plan — and about the meaning of words like “modify” and the difference between “cancel” and “waive.”

So, I sympathize with those in the audience in the court and those who gathered outside the courthouse in Washington, D.C., many of them with big college debts that could be eased by the president’s plan, who felt forgotten. Repaying their student loans is a huge burden, they said. The debt forgiveness plan would significantly help them by removing that weight from their lives.

Why, they wondered, wasn’t the human aspect of this issue being discussed?

“It felt like people who could never understand why we would want something like this,” Niara Thompson, a student at the University of Georgia, told the Associated Press. She had camped out overnight to get tickets to see and hear Tuesday’s oral arguments. She said she will graduate with $50,000 in student debt.

“I wanted to be like, ‘Y’all don’t understand. Y’all are focusing on this, but there’s people out here who are struggling to find food for their families,’” Thompson said.

These struggles are real. Estimated to top $1.7 trillion, it is the second largest form of debt in the U.S., behind home mortgages. Students of color are more likely to carry significant debt than white students.

This debt burden is trapping young people in jobs that they don’t want, stifling entrepreneurship and prompting many young people to delay marriage, families and home purchases. This is bad for our economy and society.

The student debt forgiveness plan announced in August would cancel $10,000 in federal student loan debt for those making less than $125,000 a year. Pell Grant recipients, who typically have more financial need, would get an additional $10,000 in debt forgiven. The White House says 26 million people have applied for student debt relief, out of the estimated 43 million who would qualify.

The plan, which is estimated to cost $400 billion over the next 30 years, is on hold pending legal challenges.

Not to get too legalistic, but there is a fairly strong argument, which those challenging the debt relief program have made, that the president overstepped his authority in launching the program through an executive order. That’s why so many of the questions from the justices focused on specific words and congressional intent.

No matter what the court decides, the rising student debt burden is a major problem that deserves the attention of Congress. But, so far, lawmakers have failed to act, in part, because there is no agreement on whether there should be help for Americans with student loan debt.

Why, as some of the justices asked Tuesday, should the federal government help students who willingly took on debt? Would that be fair to those who didn’t borrow money or who have already paid off their loans?

These questions miss the larger point that student loan debt is a drag on our economy and on people’s lives. They also set up a false dichotomy as if helping one group of people hurts another.

I was fortunate to have minimal student loans that I have paid back. But, I don’t begrudge having my tax dollars used to help others finish college. Likewise, I am fortunate enough to have enough to eat and a nice home, but I don’t begrudge helping others avoid hunger and homelessness. I believe that being part of a civil society means sometimes I help out and sometimes I may get the help.

I also wonder where the questions of fairness were when Congress approved billions of dollars in help for companies. Yes, some of that money ultimately flowed to workers, but many corporations are also raking in the profits and sharing the bounty with their shareholders.

The debate over student debt relief also does not address the fundamental underlying problem — college costs have risen, even as wages have stagnated. One reason, at least for public universities, is that lawmakers have reduced state support for these schools, often resulting in tuition increases.

No matter what the Supreme Court decides in these cases, there is much work to be done – by lawmakers and colleges and universities – to ensure that a college education is accessible and affordable for those who want one.

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Susan Young

Susan Young is the opinion editor at the Bangor Daily News. She has worked for the BDN for over 25 years as a reporter and editor.