On Tuesday, President Joe Biden announced he would extend the student debt moratorium until August 31. That extends a pandemic-era policy that allowed more than 43 million Americans who owe $1.6 trillion in student debt to defer payments.
I am one of those 43 million.
When I started college at Seattle Pacific University in 1998, I planned to become a high school Spanish teacher. This changed after my first course in Christian theology. My teacher, Dr. Kerry Dearborn, showed me that a woman could both teach theology and lead a congregation. Raised in a conservative, evangelical family, I had never known such a gracious and loving God. I have chosen to dedicate my life to sharing the good news of God’s intentions for the world.
With a little help from my family, on-campus jobs, grants, and scholarships, I earned two Bachelor of Arts degrees debt-free. But the scholarships for my graduate studies did not cover 10 years of full-time graduate studies, which required me to take out loans every semester. By the time I finished my PhD, my loans totaled $89,000. That’s slightly less than the $101,918 average debt of PhD graduates who attend private, nonprofit schools. Today, nearly nine years after graduating, my debt is $95,000. Although I never defaulted, there were two periods, totaling 16 months, when I deferred payments due to unemployment and financial hardship.
My experience has convinced me that higher education needs to be recalibrated as a public good. To get there, President Biden should use his executive power to provide full student debt forgiveness and help Congress pass the College for All Act, which eliminates tuition at public colleges and universities for families. earning up to $125,000 and making community college free for everyone.
In 2019, three years after fulfilling my dream of teaching theology at my alma mater, university administrators cut my tenure-track position to balance the budget. Devastated, I moved into congregational ministry in the Presbyterian Church. Since then, I have served small congregations with tight budgets.
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Before the pandemic, I was making monthly student loan repayments under the income-contingent repayment plan. This federal student loan program, which has more than 8.5 million borrowers, adjusted the amount I owed each month based on income and family size. But my payments under this plan often did not cover the accrued interest on my loans. Where an increase in income allowed me to pay more, the increase in my principal balance prevented me from making a dent in my overall debt.
At the same time, my husband, a clinical social worker, was also repaying student loans. Together, our debt burden in March 2020 was $157,000. We lived month to month, unable to save for big expenses, retirement or our son’s college education, let alone for emergencies. Paying off our loans was like taking on a second mortgage. Our debt has trapped us.
We remained hopeful that at least his loans could eventually be forgiven through the Public Student Loan Forgiveness (PSLF) program, a program for public service workers launched by Congress during the Bush administration. After a participant has made qualifying monthly payments for 120 months while working full-time for a licensed employer in a public service-related field, PSLF cancels the remaining balance on direct loans. But PSLF was riddled with problems stemming from strict and complicated requirements; 98% of applicants were denied loan forgiveness.
In July 2021, the Biden administration extended PSLF eligibility to clergy and other student borrowers engaged in religiously oriented work. My challenge is to find a church that can afford to pay me full time so that I can qualify for the program.
In my field, getting a full-time teaching position at a college or university is next to impossible. If I can remain employed full time in the church, I have at least five years of payments until I can be exempt under the PSLF. Assuming I can afford to make these payments uninterrupted, I’ll be 47, a son in high school, and no savings for retirement or college.
“Repaying our loans was like taking on a second mortgage. Our debt has trapped us.
The Biden administration is hesitant on whether to grant large-scale student loan forgiveness, but Miguel Cardona, the education secretary, has legal authority under the Higher Education Act of 1965 to cancel all student loans without congressional authorization. With the looming prospect of large-scale losses for Democrats in the midterm elections, it is economically and politically expedient for Biden to use his authority to enact full student loan forgiveness.
Such a move is also consistent with Biden’s deep-rooted faith. Quoting St. Augustine in his inaugural address, he expressed a vision of an America defined by our shared love for things like dignity and opportunity. How can we achieve this vision in a higher education system in which 43 million Americans are imprisoned by debt to the tune of $1.6 trillion?
Shannon Smythe is a graduate of Princeton Theological Seminary and an ordained senior teacher of the Presbyterian Church (USA). She lives with her family in Morrisville, Pennsylvania.