Emily Articulated: Student loan (and) forgiveness

By Emily Erickson
Reader Contributor

I’m not proud of my initial reaction to the Biden administration’s student loan debt forgiveness plan. The plan, announced last week, is a multi-pronged strategy to cancel $10,000 in student loan debts ($20,000 for Pell Grant recipients) for people earning less than $125,000 a year. This plan also caps undergraduate loan repayment at 5% of a borrower’s monthly income, providing significant relief for an estimated 43 million Americans.

Emily Erickson.

My reaction to this relief for my peers was feeling swindled — like I had been conned into giving away my ticket to abundance while everyone else was waving theirs around. I said I’m not proud, but let me explain. 

The summer between my senior year of high school and before my freshman year of college, my mom — the sole earner of our family — died. I quickly realized the financial burden of my continued education (and the rest of my life) was mine alone to carry — a reality for many but, starkly, newly mine. 

I chose my collegiate institution largely based on the amount of scholarship and financial aid I’d receive and was awarded a Pell Grant, with further assistance for low-income families. I supplemented my education with paid work, either juggling a full-time job with a full course load or part-time work, full-time school and running extracurriculars. But, despite all the assistance and all the hours spent slinging beers and waiting tables between my school work, I still left college with about $23,000 of student loan debt.

Post-graduation, I began the arduous process of loan repayment, often contributing a significant portion of my wages to meet the monthly minimums. After about a year, and with thousands of dollars contributed, I checked the balance on my accounts and was horrified to learn that nearly all of what I’d been paying went to cover the interest on the loans. I was in the perpetually re-filling hole of debt, with only one way out: spending the life insurance money my mom left my siblings and me upon her death. I used this entrusted $20,000 — a sum that my mom hoped would be spent on a down payment for my first home — and, effectively, paid off all my loans.

So, when the announcement was released, I didn’t think about the relief for my peers, but, rather, fixated on how much I could have done with $20,000 if I’d only waited for its forgiveness. It felt like being punished for doing the “sensible” thing.

But that logic and my reaction were flawed. A scarcity mindset — or the general notion that prosperity is a pie, and one person’s large slice means another’s small one — made me think of all the ways in which the plan wouldn’t help me, and all the ways it should have helped me, but didn’t. My own self-absorption distracted me from considering all the people who had been stuck in the re-filling hole of debt that I’d been fortunate enough to climb out of, as well as all that I’d been able to accomplish without the crushing weight of loans and interest influencing my life’s decisions.

My myopic thinking broadened beyond my own experience in the hours after the announcement, recognizing other people’s relief and the collective abundance that can occur when money is allocated to people who actually need it. 

This perspective really clicked into place when I read New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s reflection on the plan on Instagram. 

She wrote: “Not every program has to be for everybody. People with apartments pay for first-time homeowner benefits. Young people pay for Medicare for our seniors. People who take public transit pay for car infrastructure. Maybe student loan forgiveness doesn’t impact you. That doesn’t make it bad. We can do good things and reject the [idea] that doing something good for someone else comes at the cost of something for ourselves.” 

She reiterated that a scarcity mindset is not compatible with public programs.

Canceling student debt will transform the lives of so many people, opening up funds for the opportunities my generation has been frequently denied: purchasing a house, putting away money for retirement and starting businesses. Beyond that, it will begin to correct for the disproportionate student load debt held by minorities, and serve as the first step in fixing a system built on extorting young people with dangled promises of “a better future” post-degree.

Part of being a citizen is thinking broadly about things — considering widespread impact, even when it doesn’t directly benefit us. It’s thinking about all the lives that can and will be made better by things that may not improve ours. And it’s confronting our own less-than-ideal reactions to programs designed to elevate our collective experience, evaluating and amending our perspectives and, perhaps, it’s asking for a little forgiveness.

Emily Erickson is a writer and business owner with an affinity for black coffee and playing in the mountains. Connect with her online at www.bigbluehat.studio.

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