Campus students, community react to Biden’s rejection of student debt proposal

A resolution to cover up to $50,000 in loans of student debt was rejected by President Joe Biden, but at a CNN town hall, the president indicated that he would be open to forgiving $10,000 of student debt. Many members of the campus community were disappointed to hear this, with campus senior Madhumitha Krishnan expressing concerns over the role loans play in aggravating existing economic inequality. (Photo by Gage Skidmore under CC BY SA 4.0 .)

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President Joe Biden rejected a resolution Feb. 16 by congressional Democrats, which would have forgiven up to $50,000 in debt per student. In the days that followed, the UC Berkeley community expressed mixed responses to his decision.

The resolution encouraged Biden to use his executive power and erase up to $50,000 in federal student debt per person. Biden commented during a CNN town hall that he would be willing to cancel $10,000 per student instead.

“I think that $10,000 is too low a threshold,” said Robert Birgeneau, campus chancellor emeritus in an email. “At Berkeley, while I was Chancellor, the average student debt of those who had debt was about $19,000. That would be a good place to start.”

To enhance the equity of a possible student debt forgiveness policy, it must avoid regressive impacts and prevent exacerbating existing economic inequality, according to campus senior Madhumitha Krishnan.

Birgeneau noted in the email that the Biden administration remains committed to funneling funding to historically disadvantaged communities.

ASUC President Victoria Vera said many students carrying debt come from low-income and Black, Indigenous or people of color communities, resulting in a cycle that promotes inaccessibility to higher education.

“When I was entering college, my siblings encouraged me to apply to scholarships, to grants, to get your money before you come to college,” Vera said. “Debt feels like a fear tactic, a gatekeeping measure, really.”

Birgeneau noted that student debt predominantly comes from those who attended for-profit universities, as well as those who failed to graduate. Those individuals, therefore, did not attain the income benefits that come with having a college degree, Birgeneau said, but are still burdened by student debt.

That burden has potentially long-term implications, Vera said, not just for the financial health of students but for the country at large. Someone with heaps of debt would most likely hesitate to purchase a home or start a family, hindering economic progress, Vera added.

“Whether 10k or 50k loan forgiveness, both are just a dent in this larger fight for educational justice, and we should be fighting for more,” Krishnan said in an email.

Biden stated at the CNN town hall that his ideal debt forgiveness policy would vary based on family income and if they attended a public or private university. Birgeneau agreed that a student loan forgiveness plan is still possible and that it should be done equitably rather than with a blanket policy.

Vera highlighted the importance of grassroots action in convincing representatives to pass a progressive debt forgiveness policy. She added students who were calling their local, state and federal representatives during the Trump administration should carry that advocacy into the Biden administration.

“It takes political courage to have progressive policies that help all students, period,” Vera said. “Not just students that go to public universities or private universities; not just graduate students or undergraduates; but every student currently in our country who’s experiencing the realities of student debt.”

Contact Katherine Shok and Karen Vo at [email protected].