PITTSBURGH — When Allie Holler started Duquesne University in 2017, the York County native remembers encountering a class divide markedly different from what she knew from her semi-rural hometown — with “super preppy” kids and their elitist attitudes mixed among her peers from the lower middle class.
But as Holler, now 23, got to know more of her classmates on campus, a surprising common denominator emerged: the thousands of dollars in student loans they had taken on to afford their higher education.
“I was talking with some of my friends about student loan debt, and some of them are like, $100,000 in debt,” Holler explained. “I’m privileged that I graduated with only $30,000 in debt from a private university.”
Yet Holler wasn’t yet done with her schooling — or with student debt. Now a graduate student in a human security program at the University of Pittsburgh, Holler said her total debt load has skyrocketed to around $75,000, or over double the $32,731 average student loan debt held in the United States.
The rising sum has inspired Holler to join a coalition of progressives and debt advocacy groups calling on President Joe Biden to cancel the $1.6 trillion in federal student debt the nation currently holds, releasing a generation of financial burden that’s led them to fall behind on adulthood milestones like starting families, having children and buying homes.
The problem: a year after Biden said he would consider canceling at least $10,000 in federal student loans, no agreement has been reached, despite increased calls from house Democrats for action. Meanwhile, a pause on student loan payments enacted during the pandemic to ease financial strain is set to expire Aug. 31, stirring anxiety among young graduates who anticipate making tough choices to afford their monthly loan payments.
“People need to continue to hold his administration’s feet to the fire on this,” said Nick Marcil, the Pennsylvania branch leader of the Debt Collective, a national debtors union that advocates for debt cancellation on behalf of the more than 44 million Americans that hold federal student loans.
“It’s something that, if (Biden) seriously thinks is a priority, caring about these 44 million debtors — which you hope that he would — something needs to be done.”
Holler remembers growing up in a large, blended family with three siblings on her father’s side and a step-mom with four kids. Both her father, step-mom, and biological mom, who passed away when Holler was 8, earned college degrees.
Holler was raised in the Mount Wolf borough, a community of just 1,367 but known as the hometown of Pennsylvania’s Gov. Tom Wolf. It was leaving Mount Wolf to pursue an education that led Wolf on a path to becoming the state’s top official; the governor holds three degrees, from Dartmouth College, the University of London and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
“In the beginning, I was kind of naïve, not really thinking about the financial side of going to college, because it was kind of just pounded into my head that you need a college degree to better yourself, and better your life,” Holler said. “My dad really wanted me to go to college.”
In 2017, Holler would accept a spot in Duquesne University’s incoming freshman class, incentivized by its well-regarded international affairs program. She earned some scholarship money, but remembers the shock at seeing how much left she would have to pay in tuition, which was $42,844 five years ago.
By the time Holler graduated in 2020, a semester early, the pandemic was just starting to spread across the U.S. Holler remembers rethinking her degree as the job market cooled, leading her to apply for a graduate program in human security in Pitt’s school of public and international affairs.
The program, which Pitt’s website says is a first of its kind in the U.S., trains students in policy related to civil wars, international migration and crime, global climate changes and natural disasters.
“I think a lot of people were scrambling and feeling weird, and that’s how I felt,” Holler said of her immediate jump to grad school. “I don’t think I was thinking, ‘Oh man, I have student debt now.’”
Soon, however, she would be thinking more about the exorbitant cost of earning two degrees, let alone one. Between Duquesne and Pitt, Holler said, her current debt is around $75,000. With another year of her graduate program left, and housing costs, she estimates that figure exceeding $85,000 and possibly nearing $100,000.
To get by this summer, Holler is working part-time at a plant store while working two public policy internships, one at a Fortune 500 corporation and another for a state politician.
Though with debts to pay, she’s torn about which path to pursue after graduation. The corporate jobs, she said, would offer a high-paying salary that would allow her to pay off her loans quicker. But the job in government, the one Holler sees as a path to making a difference, would pay between $30,000 and $40,000 — not enough to make a dent on her loan payments that are expected to exceed $600 per month when the federal pause ends this September.
Marcil, of the Debt Collective, said this resumption of payments is fueling anxiety in young people with student loans, including himself; the 24 year-old holds $17,000 in debt from West Chester University in Chester County.
And while Biden’s administration announced in July a proposal aimed at addressing the debt crisis, Marcil isn’t convinced it will make headwind against the outstanding sum debtors owe.
Part of the proposal applies to people working in the public sector, looking to expand their access to some student loan forgiveness and extend the program’s application window. To qualify for the program, called Public Service Loan Forgiveness, borrowers must have made at least 120 payments on their loans, typical over a 10 year period.
In addition, Biden’s Department of Education is seeking to eliminate interest capitalization for some borrowers who miss payments, preventing unpaid interest from contributing to the principal loan amount.
But that’s not what the president said he would deliver, according to Marcil, who quotes Biden’s 2020 campaign promise of “$10,000 for every single borrower” and for “all tuition related undergraduate school debt.”
As for the program’s target of public sector employees, which includes government and nonprofit workers, Marcil sees questions arising over which career-holders will actually qualify — not to mention the program’s dismal record on accepting applications.
“Why, if I’m going into a job, do I even have to take out that amount of debt in the first place?” Marcil said. “You should not have to take out debt for something that should be a public good. That education is not just for yourself personally, but for the community. We need doctors, we need lawyers, we need teachers, we need social workers, we need journalists. Everyone and anyone who is going to be making us into a better society, and having people having to take on more debt is just going to harm us.”
Sarah Cutshall, a 23-year-old who graduated last year from the University of Pittsburgh, said she did “everything right” when it came to preparing for college, working three jobs to save up tuition money and earning a 3.9 GPA in hopes of getting a scholarship. But still, to earn her degree in environmental science, Cutshall had to borrow $125,000, and has $22,000 in private loans and $25,000 in government loans left to pay.
On Pitt’s campus, she’s not alone. According to data on the university’s class of 2020, the average private debt held by students was $47,388, with 57% of students on campus holding debt overall.
“At the beginning, it wasn’t too bad,” Cutshall explained. “I had $7,000 saved up, and my parents helped me out a bit. It was like, ‘This isn’t too bad, I can do this.’ But definitely by the time I graduated and saw the totals, I was like ‘Oh no.’ It’s a lot of money to agree to pay back when you’re 18 years old.”
While she works in Washington, D.C., as a government contractor, Cutshall is chipping away at her private loan — but her government debt is on hold until she sees whether the Biden administration acts further on cancellation.
“I know a couple people who are already saving up for a down payment on a house,” Cutshall said, “and it feels pretty bad. Like I said, I’ve been doing everything right from high school, and I’m still five years from even being able to think about that too much. Definitely a house would be great. Saving for retirement would be wonderful.”
Holler, with her background in policy analysis, said she already studied the Biden administration’s stance on canceling student debt during one of her college courses.
“I mean, we all know Biden has the power to do it,” she said. “You can look at the bright pink redacted memo and that just screams, I think, he can do it but won’t.”
That memo, based on a legal analysis by the Department of Education, was obtained by the Debt Collective and released in the fall of 2021, leading some experts to conclude that Biden held the executive authority to cancel student debt.
Marcil has similar thoughts.
“One of the things that I try to emphasize in certain conversations, is instead of talking about it as forgiveness, I talk about it as cancellation,” Marcil said. “In my mind, these debtors don’t have anything they need to be forgiven for. They don’t have anything to be sorry for. Should they have to say, ‘I’m sorry, please forgive me’ to get an education? I know I don’t feel like that, and I know other debtors don’t feel like that.”
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