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Pressley, Warren call on Biden to cancel student debt

Elected officials gather at teachers union

Anna Lamb
Pressley, Warren call on Biden to cancel student debt
U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, Boston Teachers Union Jessica Tang and U.S. Rep. Ayanna Pressley discuss student debt during a forum at the teachers union headquarters in Dorchester. PHOTO: ANNA LAMB

Last week Massachusetts lawmakers came together with education advocates and union leaders to urge President Joe Biden to cancel student loan debt as the clock ticks on the federal moratorium instituted during the coronavirus pandemic.

Senator Elizabeth Warren and Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley led an hour-long ‘roundtable’ discussion at the Boston Teacher’s Union headquarters Wednesday where they were flanked by panelists including BTU President Jessica Tang, Massachusetts Teachers Association President Max Page, Chief of Staff of the Massachusetts AFL-CIO Chrissy Lynch and Western Massachusetts Area Labor Federation Spokesperson Ian Rhodewalt.

“Student debt is an issue that affects the entire Boston Public Schools community, from our teachers and administrators struggling to pay off their loans to our students working on college applications who are afraid of what they’re going to have to sacrifice for their futures and if it’s even worth it to apply to college and go to college,” Tang said in her opening address to the room in Dorchester.

The moratorium is set to end at the end of August with no word from Biden whether he plans to enact any form of loan forgiveness despite a campaign promise to forgo $10,000 in federal loans for qualifying borrowers. The original nation-wide pause was put in place in March 2020 and has already been extended multiple times — another possibility for white house action.

According to a Forbes report earlier this year more than half of Americans from public four-year institutions have student loan debt, with the majority of those loans coming from the federal government. According to statistics from the Department of Education, the average owed per borrower is $28,950.

Warren has repeatedly called on the president to cancel $50,000 in student loan debt which she says could dramatically reduce economic disparities by race and gender.

“We could close the Black-white wealth gap — the wealth gap overall for people with student loan debt — by 27 points. There is not another single action the president could take all by himself that would have such a profound effect on racial equity,” she said.

Warren went on to mention that women carry two-thirds of student debt which if eliminated would have a profound effect on a large majority of the population.

“Just think about the implications that means for people across this country,” she said.

Pressley, who has also been a continued advocate on behalf of students struggling with debt, shared a personal story of struggling with repayment and sympathized with those facing additional hardship because of crippling debt.

“I thought quite poorly of myself and I didn’t understand how, despite the fact that I was working sometimes three jobs, that I could not get ahead. And ultimately I did, but that was decades and decades later. In the meantime, that affected my credit score, my ability to secure housing and in some instances gainful employment, because I had a such a poor score,” she said.

“We’ve been told over and over again that we live in a meritocracy and that the road to equalization and that meritocracy is education — [that] education is the equalizer,” Pressley added. “So many Black folks pursued it for those reasons and they found that it could not close the racial wealth gap and it has only deepened the chasm.”

The congresswoman also stressed that while she is calling on the president to make good on his debt cancellation promise, it doesn’t change the affordability problem.

“We need to expand Pell Grants, we need tuition-free college,” she said.

The discussion Wednesday was opened to questions from audience members, who took the opportunity to share their own struggles with debt and ask the representatives to step in with solutions.

Karen Perry-Daley, now retired, was a BPS teacher for over 30 years. She asked the two lawmakers at the table what could be done for teachers and former educators slipping through the cracks of highly specific debt relief programs offered by the state. Perry-Daley said she has tried to utilize forgiveness based on tenure, teaching at a low-income school and for achieving additional education.

“So those three areas of forgiveness seem to be blocked no matter which direction I’m turning, and I have been paying student loans since 2003 and still have another seven years to go,” the 71-year-old said.

Warren said her office would look into the issue directly, while Pressley took the opportunity to double down on the call to action for the white house.

“It’s a unilateral action that President Biden can do. He has the authority at the stroke of a pen to alleviate this burden of this hardship and it’s automatic,” she said.

In her final statement she urged those present to continue pushing her office and others to make debt cancellation a reality.

“Reach out to your friends. Now is the moment to make your voice heard in Washington. Tell me. Get that number up. And let’s get it done,” she said.