Petition Calling on Biden to Cancel Student Debt Gets More Than 1 Million Signatures

Photo: Austin Hossfeld
  • A petition on calling on the president to cancel student debt has been signed by more than 1 million people.
  • CNBC spoke to some of the signees about why they added their names, and how their lives would look different without the loans.

Every day, Austin Hossfeld types the same words into Google: "Biden" and "student loans."

"A lot of the times, it's the same articles," Hossfeld, 26, said. "I reread them.

"At night, I talk to my wife about it."

Like so many other Americans, the Carroll, Ohio, resident is eager for any new information on what President Joe Biden will decide to do, if anything, about the country's $1.7 trillion outstanding student loan balance. Recently, Hossfeld's online searching led him to a petition calling on the president to cancel all of that debt.

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He signed it. So have more than 1 million other people.

"It's a no-brainer to help the lives of millions of people," he said.

On the campaign trail, Biden said he supported forgiving $10,000 in student loans for all borrowers, but more recently he has asked his Education secretary to prepare a memo on his legal authority to wipe out as much as $50,000 each for all. That's after he faced mounting pressure from other Democrats, including Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, from Massachusetts, to go further.

Increasingly, borrowers are also among those demanding forgiveness from the president.

Erin O'Brien, an associate professor of political science at the University of Massachusetts Boston, said the petition is likely to catch eyes in the White House.

"Numbers matter," O'Brien said. "That's what moves politicians."

Polling shows that two-thirds of Americans support some form of student loan forgiveness. Just 4 in 10, however, believe all the debt should be canceled.

Critics of student loan forgiveness argue that it wouldn't significantly stimulate the economy, since college graduates tend to be higher earners who would likely redirect their monthly payments to savings rather than additional spending. Others say a jubilee would be unfair to those who've already paid off their student debt or never took out loans. Those borrowers "might feel that their frugality was being punished," Noah Smith, a columnist for Bloomberg, recently wrote.

Advocates say that borrowers were already struggling before the public health crisis — with more than 1 in 4 in delinquency or default — and that after more than a year of record-high unemployment levels, that pain has only worsened.  

"Before the Covid-19 public health crisis began, student debt was already a drag on the national economy, weighing heaviest on Black and Latinx communities, as well as women," more than 400 organizations, including the American Civil Liberties Union and the American Psychological Association, wrote in a letter to the White House in April.

"Administrative debt cancellation will deliver real progress on your racial equity, economic recovery, and Covid-19 relief campaign priorities."

Hossfeld and his wife, Hayley, owe around $50,000 in student debt.

He graduated from Ohio Dominican University in 2017 with a degree in computer science, and now works as a technician in a lab. He finds the job dull, and wants to become a teacher instead.

But he's scared to go back to school and take on more debt.

"I feel stuck," he said.

He and his wife would also love to have a child, but they worry they won't be able to afford the child-care and health expenses when they have to put $800 a month toward their student loans.

"Talk about stimulus," Hossfeld said, if Biden forgave their debt.

"Eight hundred dollars a month extra, for me, would be amazing," he said. "It would allow me to start a family, and get a different job.

"I dream about it."

'It's been really depressing'

Christine Angelique of Portland, Oregon, signed the petition after her mother forwarded it to her.

Her student debt balance is more than $168,000.

Since Angelique graduated in 2010 with a degree in interior design from the Art Institute of Portland, she hasn't been able to land a full-time job. The chain of for-profit colleges has come under fire for misleading students about their programs and career outcomes.

"I ended up working a lot of part-time and seasonal jobs," Angelique, 43, said. "It's been really depressing."

In 2017, she filed for bankruptcy because of her credit card debt, which she said she'd accumulated to cover bills and essentials without a steady, adequate paycheck. She wasn't able to discharge her student loans in the proceeding.

Things have only worsened in the coronavirus pandemic. She was furloughed from her job at a hotel in March 2020, and has since been laid off. Some of her student loans are now in default.

The six-figure debt leaves her feeling hopeless, though she knows she's not alone.

"I've even commented to my mom, 'I wouldn't be surprised if there's an increase in suicides,'" she said. "It's just the way you feel trapped.

"How can you move forward in life with that kind of debt?"

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