a Black person wearing an NAACP hoodie holds a sign above his head reading "cancel student debt"
WASHINGTON, DC - APRIL 27: Wisdom Cole of the NAACP joins student debtors to once again call on President Joe Biden to cancel student debt at an early morning action outside the White House on April 27, 2022, in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Paul Morigi/Getty Images for We The 45 Million)

UPDATE: On Wednesday, Aug. 24, President Joe Biden announced a sweeping effort to forgive $10,000 of federal student loan debt, and up to $20,000 for Pell Grant recipients. People who are single and make less than $125,000 a year qualify for the debt cancellation. Married people with a joint income of less than $250,000 also qualify.

Weeks after the federal government extended its pause on student loan repayments for the fourth time since 2021, the White House confirmed President Joe Biden is considering a move to cancel at least $10,000 of federal student loan debt per borrower through executive order. Biden said an exact plan would be announced in the coming weeks.

Instead of indefinite pauses, canceling student loan debt outright would be a stronger remedy to the country’s student loan debt crisis totaling $1.7 trillion owed by about 44 million Americans, fueled by stagnating wages and the rising cost of college. 

Biden’s current proposal would forgive at least $10,000 of federal student debt per person, but that amount may vary depending on a borrower’s income, the type of institute they attended, and the kind of loan they took. Some Democratic lawmakers have urged Biden to go further, championing at least $50,000 in student debt forgiveness, but the president has said he would not forgive an amount that high.

Critics of the $10,000 plan are skeptical about whether it would sufficiently help unburden BIPOC borrowers, as students of color are much more likely to lack the generational wealth to cover college costs out of pocket. 

Research shows Black and Latinx students are more likely to take on student debt at higher rates to finance their education and end up with greater debt years later compared to their white peers. Over 90% of Black students leave college with student debt compared to 72% of Latinx students and 66% of white students, according to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

For Braxton Brewington, a graduate of North Carolina A&T State University, the largest historically Black university in the country, taking out student loans was the only way he could pay for college. His parents were still paying off their own student loans.

“I always like to say it wasn’t a ‘decision.’ There was no other option,” said Brewington, who works with The Debt Collective, a membership-based debtors union that advocates for abolishing burdensome debts. Brewington began paying off his loans as a student working three-to-four jobs at a time to make ends meet.

“I just have so many memories of like, literally it’s 10:30 p.m. and I’m standing at a register with a textbook open and … someone is just staring at me with a cart full of groceries,” Brewington said. He estimated he paid $15,000 in student loan repayments, yet he still owes about $40,000 in federal student loans. 

The average American borrower owes about $30,000 in student debt. That means forgiving $10,000 would still leave most people with tens of thousands of student debt to pay off. It would also exclude 6.3 million private student loan borrowers, who would not qualify under Biden’s current proposal.

But the $10,000 proposal could still help some borrowers become student debt-free. 

“This would be literally life-changing,” said Michelle N., a freelance lifestyle journalist in Berlin. N. graduated from Scripps College, a private liberal arts women’s college in California. The daughter of Korean immigrants, she took out a mix of private and federal student loans to pay her way through college. She still owes about $10,000 in federal loans.

“I’ve been paying a couple hundred every month,” N. said. “But as someone who doesn’t earn that much money, that couple hundred is the difference between me actually saving something … versus literally living paycheck to paycheck.”

According to the Roosevelt Institute, a progressive think tank, wiping out $10,000 in student debt per borrower would erase all student debt for a third of borrowers, or 13 million people. It would also zero out student debt for 2 million Black borrowers. A recent poll by Morning Consult and Politico found that 64% of respondents supported some form of student loan forgiveness, but public opinion varies on how much and for whom.

But to truly address the racial impact of the student debt crisis, only a more aggressive approach will suffice. According to the same analysis, reducing “the share of Black individuals with debt to below the present 15.1% share of white persons with debt” would require more than $20,000 in student debt forgiveness. Moreover, a larger amount of student debt forgiveness would provide greater relief to those unable to repay their student loan debt due to unequal income and wealth.

A separate 2019 study found a huge disparity in debt burden for Black borrowers, in particular—after 20 years, the average Black borrower still owes 95% of their original cumulative debt, while the average white borrower has typically paid down nearly that same percentage of their original balance within the same time period. 

“While the student loan system was designed to provide access to higher education, it has turned into a debt sentence for borrowers from low-wealth backgrounds, first-generation, and Black students,” said Tatjana Meschede, associate director of Brandeis University’s Institute on Assets and Social Policy and co-author of the study.

“I would bet my bottom dollar that most first-generational people of color who are attending college in the U.S. and are taking out student loans, there is nobody talking to them about what it means,” said Jacqueline Edwards, a Black physician assistant in Wisconsin, and the first in her family to go to college. “You don’t understand any of that, you just know [getting an education] is a means for you to get to your ultimate goal. So you’re going to take that step.”

Edwards, who grew up on food stamps, needed significant student loans to cover college and living expenses, raising three children while enrolled full-time in bachelor’s and master’s programs at a private university. Wanting to invest in her family’s future, she put her student loan repayments on forbearance to buy a house. Edwards now owes roughly $200,000 in student loans, placing her among the 6% of borrowers with six-figure student debt. 

She described her experience as a “purgatory type of trap.” 

“The life that I live today, I could not live without an education,” said Edwards, who has been able to offer financial support to her entire family. “But there’s absolutely no way that I can fathom in my mind … where would I have come up with the money to pay for the education?” 

She hopes Biden will consider canceling all student debt, which would be life-changing for a greater number of people, including herself. 

“I haven’t paid my student loans during the pandemic, I’m sure I’m not alone in that,” Edwards said. “But it’s been a relief to not have to think about it because it’s just a lot of money. It changes your entire way of living.”

Natasha Ishak is a New York City-based journalist who covers politics, public policy, and social justice issues. Her work has been published by VICE, Fortune, Mic, The Nation, and Harvard's Nieman Lab...