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Disappointed but optimistic: WA student loan borrowers react to Supreme Court debt relief ruling

A sign reading "Student Debt" is seen outside the Supreme Court, Friday, June 30, 2023, as decisions are expected in Washington. A sharply divided Supreme Court has ruled that the Biden administration overstepped its authority in trying to cancel or reduce student loan debts for millions of Americans. Conservative justices were in the majority in Friday’s 6-3 decision that effectively killed the $400 billion plan that President Joe Biden announced last year.
Mariam Zuhaib
/
AP
A sign reading "Student Debt" is seen outside the Supreme Court, Friday, June 30, 2023, as decisions are expected in Washington. A sharply divided Supreme Court has ruled that the Biden administration overstepped its authority in trying to cancel or reduce student loan debts for millions of Americans. Conservative justices were in the majority in Friday’s 6-3 decision that effectively killed the $400 billion plan that President Joe Biden announced last year.

The Supreme Court struck down President Joe Biden's plan to cancel and reduce student loan debt for millions of Americans on last week. Washington Senator Patty Murray called the Supreme Court's decision on student loan debt a "devastating set back" for millions of student borrowers. That includes hundreds of thousands of Washington residents.

"This is another Supreme Court season where at the end of the season, I just feel very disappointed," said Tai Williams. "I feel like rights aren't being expanded or things getting easier. I feel like things are just getting harder for everybody."

Williams is a law office assistant in Snohomish County. A single mom in her 30s, she recently enrolled in school to get her bachelor's degree. She said she never had the opportunity to go before in part because of the cost, but she didn't want to wait anymore.

"I just bit the bullet. In all honesty, much of the population has some type of debt when it comes to schooling or homes and things like that. So I thought, if I'm going to have debt anyways, maybe I should have a degree with my debt."

Williams will graduate next year and expects to owe about $50,000 or $60,000. She has accepted that she will be paying for her education well into her 60s and 70s. But the chance to achieve higher education and advance her career was worth it.

"I feel that this has given me a lust for life that I didn't have before. It makes me feel a little bit more connected to the community, which I didn't have before. And it's made me more aware of the importance of progression," Williams said.

In August 2022, President Biden told federal student loan borrowers within certain incomes that the U.S. government would cancel up to $20,000 of debt for Pell Grant recipients, and up to $10,000 for the vast majority of remaining borrowers. Nearly 700,000 Washingtonians were eligible for relief at the time. According to an analysis by The Seattle Times almost 486,000 Washingtonians applied for relief and 308,000 were approved.

Williams was approved for the full $20,000 of debt relief. But then, six states filed a lawsuit to stop the debt cancellation plan. They argued Biden exceeded his authority under the federal law. The Supreme Court agreed.

"That American dream seems to be fading away because of debt, because you're going to owe somebody something."

Williams said, even though she would still have a significant amount of debt, relief would have made it more manageable. It might have even made going to grad school, or law school, more feasible. More importantly, she said paying back her debt would have made her proud.

"That American dream seems to be fading away because of debt, because you're going to owe somebody something. I'll pay off everything I need to pay off, but if I get an opportunity to pay off sooner, I'll feel indebted to the system for what they've offered me."

Immediately after the ruling, Williams was unsure of what it would mean for her future. With hundreds of dollars in payments looming, she didn't know when she'd ever be able to take a vacation, or how it would impact her opportunity to buy a home. She did know one thing for certain: "I'm gonna pay. There's no end of the tunnel. I'm just gonna start paying and will pay. That's going to be my retirement life is just paying off my student debt. That's America I guess."

Simon Tran, 28, also wondered what his future would look like after the decision. Tran graduated from the University of Washington in 2016. He said his parents were able to help him with tuition but he still had to take out loans to cover the cost of living in Seattle. He currently owes about $18,500. Even though he's been making payments toward his loan since he graduated, he said the only reason he was able to make a dent, is because he used his pandemic stimulus check to pay.

"I thought that was really the one time I was able to make any progress in my student loan payments."

Tran is an arts educator and performing artist currently based in Olympia. And he said it's been a tough couple of years and student loans payments have factored into his financial planning.

"I've been laid off two, three times, and had to find jobs that did not pay as much as I used to earn. If I'm saving a few hundred dollars a month, that can go toward rent or not being anxious about the amount of money that I spend in grocery stores or even have the ability to travel and do hobbies," Tran said.

Tran would have had about half of his debt wiped away, if Biden's plan had been upheld.

"I feel really disappointed," Tran said. "Millions of Americans, including myself, will have to figure out what to do next and that is something that I'm really worried about. I don't know how I can comfortably plan for my future."

But Tran is optimistic. He said he's thankful he doesn't have as much debt as others although he's concerned about how this will affect various racial minorities who are particularly burdened by student loan debt. He said the decision makes him more interested in getting involved politically.

"I feel really heartened by progressive elected officials, including the Biden administration, who have not only expressed their disappointment, but are finding ways to support people impacted by this," Tran said.

"We learned that when people got stimulus checks they contributed back to the communities, they were buying things, and people were paying off their debt," he continued. "It's just so short sighted, these decisions, because it doesn't realize that no one benefits from debt, no one benefits from the lack of affirmative action or diversity within schools and different institutions. Now we know that more and more people are voicing that this is not okay, and people are trying to do something about it. So I'm holding on to that."

Shortly after the Supreme Court revealed its decision, President Joe Biden said his administration will attempt "whatever pathway we can" for student debt relief.

Mayowa Aina covers cost-of-living and affordability issues in Western Washington. She focuses on how people do (or don't) make ends meet, impacts on residents' earning potential and proposed solutions for supporting people living at the margins of our community. Get in touch with her by emailing maina@knkx.org.