Abdulaziz Mohamed can hardly fathom the idea of having his student loan debt wiped away. The University of Minnesota sophomore, who has amassed about $10,000 in debt, often thinks about his job prospects and whether he will be positioned to quickly pay off the loans.
President Joe Biden's call to cancel $10,000 in federal student loan debt for all borrowers gives Mohamed hope of a future where young people aren't crushed by debt. "That would be a huge lift off my back," he said.
The debate over how to tackle the mounting student debt crisis has intensified since Biden was elected, with the president supporting some loan forgiveness through legislation and top Democratic senators pressing him to cancel up to $50,000 per borrower via executive action. Minnesota college students and advocates are excited about the possibility of loan forgiveness, but they acknowledge more sweeping changes are needed to protect future borrowers from falling deep into debt.
American student loan debt hit $1.7 trillion in the third quarter of 2020, per the Federal Reserve. Some 42 million Americans owe an average of more than $30,000 in federal student loan debt, according to Educationdata.org. Black college graduates owe about $25,000 more than their white peers, on average.
In Minnesota, college graduates who borrowed for a bachelor's degree averaged about $25,000 in debt in 2018, data from the state Office of Higher Education show.
That's why Anisa Omar, a 22-year-old Minnesota State University, Mankato graduate who's studying for law school, thinks Biden's pitch barely scratches the surface: "We're asking for cake and they're throwing us crumbs. … I would shoot for the stars and say that all student debt should be canceled."
Student advocacy groups are already pressuring the new president and Congress. LeadMN, the statewide community college student association, has sent nearly 2,000 student letters to Biden and Congress in the past week calling for debt forgiveness. Students United, an association representing students at Minnesota State's seven public universities, has also kicked off a federal advocacy campaign.
Party lines drawn
"It's really impacting my generation," said Jonathan McNicholes, Students United's state chair and a first-year graduate student at Metropolitan State University. "You're having a bunch of 20- to 30-year-olds coming into the economy with $50,000 worth of debt. They can't focus on buying a house. They can't focus on making moves across the country."
While the political prospects for student debt cancellation remain unclear, party lines have already been drawn among the Minnesota delegation.
Democratic Sen. Tina Smith and Reps. Ilhan Omar and Angie Craig each expressed support for debt relief policies, according to individual statements. Omar said she has had positive conversations with the Biden administration about the relief effort and is hopeful the president will "seize this opportunity."
Democratic Rep. Betty McCollum did not say whether she supported student debt cancellation. In a statement, she said Biden and Congress need to "comprehensively address the crushing burden of student loan debt."
Republican Rep. Jim Hagedorn said in a statement that federal cancellation would be irresponsible and unfair to those who already paid off their debt.
Sen. Amy Klobuchar and Reps. Tom Emmer, Pete Stauber, Michelle Fischbach and Dean Phillips did not respond to requests for comment.
Hamline University freshman Lydia Meier is just beginning to accumulate student debt and wouldn't benefit from a one-time cancellation as much as graduates or those further along in their studies. But she still supports the idea and takes issue with people who cite their own student loan repayment as an argument against cancellation for others.
"I've heard that and I just think that's ridiculous," Meier said. "Just because I maybe still will have to pay off my loans doesn't mean that everyone else should have to struggle for the rest of their life to pay back college debt."
Carrie Welton, director of policy and advocacy at Temple University's Hope Center for College, Community and Justice, likens a one-time debt cancellation to "putting a Band-Aid on a bullet wound." It won't fix the systemic problem at hand, she said, nor will it help future borrowers.
The Hope Center supports forgiveness, Welton said, but federal and state governments must also invest in making college more affordable. Efforts are underway in Minnesota to do just that.
The Minnesota State college system is seeking $23 million in state funding to create a scholarship program for students with financial needs. The program would benefit about 20,000 students annually with an average award of about $1,000, officials say.
Private colleges have asked Minnesota lawmakers to make a sizable investment in the state grant program to bump up the average award for students.
And the University of Minnesota has proposed creating a tuition-free program for state students whose families earn $50,000 or less annually.
"The new administration's work aligns directly with our strategic commitments," U President Joan Gabel said in a statement.
Minnesota Higher Education Commissioner Dennis Olson said forgiveness of state-offered student loans could also be up for discussion if the federal government were to cancel some debt. The state Office of Higher Education has already adopted the federal government's decisions to set interest rates at 0% and suspend payments.
"We would certainly look to provide flexibility as much as we could," Olson said.
Without the burden of thousands in student debt, Mohamed hopes more young people would pursue their passions and not feel pressure to enter high-paying fields. Mohamed is studying politics and economics and hopes to attend law school, even though it could put him deeper in debt.
"Setting up the next generation of leaders and making sure that they're not incurring that much debt means a better economic future for the United States of America," Mohamed said.