As court debates student loans, borrowers see disconnect

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Niara Thompson couldn’t shake her frustration as the Supreme Court debated President Joe Biden’s student debt cancellation. As she listened from the audience Tuesday, it all felt academic. There was a long discussion on the nuances of certain words. Justices asked lawyers to explore hypothetical scenarios. 

For Thompson, none of it is hypothetical. A student at the University of Georgia, she grew up watching her parents struggle with student loans and will graduate with about $50,000 of her own student debt. 

“It felt like people who could never understand why we would want something like this,” she said. “I wanted to be like, ‘Y’all don’t understand. Y’all are focusing on this, but there’s people out here who are struggling to find food for their families.’” 

Much of the discussion in Tuesday’s hearing centered on whether states had the legal right to sue over Biden’s student loans plan. But the justices also were scrutinizing whether Biden had the authority to waive hundreds of billions of dollars in debt without the explicit approval of Congress, which decides how taxpayer money is spent. 

It’s not unusual for Supreme Court cases to hang on legal technicalities, even in cases of great public interest. Yet to borrowers following Tuesday’s arguments, it felt isolating to hear such a personal subject reduced to cold legal language. 

Opponents of the plan to wipe away debt held by millions of Americans have denounced it as an insult to those who have repaid their debt and to those who didn’t attend college. 

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Thompson was among a few dozen borrowers who camped out in drizzle overnight to get seats at the court for Tuesday’s hearing. Some of the court’s liberal justices sought several times to turn the arguments back to the people who would benefit from the program, pointing out their need for relief. In response, conservatives asked if those who passed up college should pay for those who borrowed money to attend. 

For Thompson’s family, years of payments hang in the balance. Student loan payments have been on hold since the start of the pandemic, but they are set to restart 60 days after the court cases resolve — regardless of the outcome. 

Thompson and her father are each eligible for $10,000 in relief, she said. It would move her a step closer to financial stability, Thompson said, and it would eliminate the rest of her dad’s loans. 

“It just hurt my feelings a bit,” she said of Tuesday’s arguments. “I just want better for us, you know?” 

The mood inside the court — quiet and ceremonious — was a contrast to the atmosphere outside as dozens of activists rallied in support of cancellation. Crowds chanted and listened to speeches from members of Congress, including Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., and Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt. 

Advocates took to the podium to share stories about family sacrifices and life milestones deferred because of heavy student debt. 

Ella Azoulay, a 26-year-old who lives in Washington, visited the rally to join the push for debt relief, which she calls a “family issue.” A 2018 graduate of New York University, Azoulay has $40,000 in student debt, while her dad has more than $400,000 taken out on behalf of her and her two siblings. 

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“I can’t really think about my future without thinking about this huge debt,” she said. “My dad has no plans to retire. He’s in his 60s and he has said for my whole life that he will never be able to retire. And that’s really upsetting to hear.” 

During the hearing, liberal Justice Sonia Sotomayor said it would be a mistake for her fellow justices to take for themselves, instead of leaving it to education experts, “the right to decide how much aid to give” people who will struggle if the program is struck down. 

Other justices also have shown a grasp of borrowers’ plight. Justice Clarence Thomas, the court’s staunchest conservative, has written about the “crushing weight” of his own student loans, which he paid off after reaching the nation’s highest court. 

Kayla Smith, 22, joined Thompson at the overnight campout for a seat inside the court. A recent graduate of the University of Georgia, she also felt the discussion missed the bigger picture. 

Smith’s mother borrowed more than $20,000 in federal Parent Plus loans to help her pay for college. Smith sees it as the result of a broken system that forces people into debt for a shot at social mobility. 

“They were focused on small, minuscule details,” Smith, of Atlanta, said of the justices. “I even saw some of them laughing during the hearing, which was odd to me because people’s lives are being affected. It’s not a laughing matter to us, at least.” 

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