Ten years ago, Dream Defenders was founded by an uprising of youth — of college students — aiming to shape our collective destinies. We are the Trayvon Martin generation of organizers who fought — and continue to fight — for justice. We used our degrees — our education — as tools to move humanity forward and build a better world. Now, we are organizers, lawyers, professors, school teachers, doctors and even public officials who are trapped under the insurmountable burden of student debt.
The pause on federal student loan payments due to the pandemic is set to expire on Aug. 31. The Department of Education says President Joe Biden is considering $10,000 of student loan forgiveness for student loan borrowers, but that doesn’t even begin to put a dent in the student loan crisis, especially for Black borrowers. The average white borrower has around $28,000 in student loans, while the average Black borrower owes $52,000.
Student loan forgiveness is an “everyone issue,” but student loan debt disproportionately impacts Black people, their wealth and their finances. In fact, the seeds of the student loan crisis were planted when Ronald Reagan launched his political career in 1966 by targeting college students who were politically engaged by protesting and striking around issues like the draft, civil rights, discrimination and women’s liberation. Some states used to educate people for free, but Reagan’s philosophy was that if students wanted to protest, they literally would have to pay. It was a racist political project that would have implications for generations to come.
During this time, as we wait for Biden’s decision and while repayments have been paused, many are thinking about how student loan debt—if canceled—can impact our lives. Without student loan debt, thousands of us would have the opportunity to move out of our parents’ homes, afford childcare, buy a house, increase our credit score, start a family, and feel less stressed about our finances and more sure of our futures. Like many of my fellow organizers, I owe over $35,000 in student loan debt, so I asked our membership what a debt-free future could look like for them:
I could buy a house for me and my family! I thought I would be able to get a house after a degree and a job but my credit is poor and banks look at my student loans. The offers are never large enough to find Adequate housing in Florida and the price just keeps going up. That’s the biggest thing about permanent housing.
Using my energy towards more creativity and not having to monetize my hobby. I have to work two different gigs on top of my salary to keep up with bills and debt.
I would get a doctorate to become a professor at the university level. Or maybe I would get a master’s degree in chemistry. I enjoy being a student and learning new things, but my educational journey at universities stops here because I can’t afford to continue to go to school/explore new careers. We can’t even leverage the debt to buy a home.
Roughly 45 million people — one in five Americans — will have on average $400 a month to pay, and for Black borrowers, those numbers are even higher. On top of inflation, global health crises, rising rents and gas prices, we cannot afford to pay back these student loans. Let’s be clear: It costs nothing to cancel student debt. The money was lent by the federal government, and they have the power to adjust each borrower’s loan to zero, just as they’re adjusted to not accrue interest as we deal with the fallout from the pandemic.
Student loan cancellation would not only provide substantial relief to millions of borrowers but would lead to a massive paradigm shift that will put our collective power on full display. If we cancel student debt, it means that medicare for all is possible; free college is possible; living in our full dignity is possible. It’s time for us to get organized and fight for the future we deserve.
Alisha Cox is an organizer with Dream Defenders, a Florida-based nonprofit organization organizing Black and Brown youth to build power in the state’s communities to advance a new vision.