It was a moment Georgia State University alum Jaylan Scott had been anticipating for months, if not years.
The 22-year-old Macon native was working remotely from his Johns Creek home when President Joe Biden announced his executive order canceling at least $10,000 in student loan debt for college graduates who earn less than $125,000 a year.
Scott graduated in the spring with a degree in public policy, and previously worked as executive vice president for Young Democrats of Georgia while in school. He was pleasantly surprised to learn the White House also plans to cancel an additional $10,000 for Pell Grant recipients like him. Roughly 60% of students who receive Pell Grants are Black. Scott had only expected Biden to forgive a maximum of $10,000 in student loan debt in conjunction with previous reports.
The total $20,000 in anticipated debt relief just so happens to be the approximate amount Scott borrowed to pay for his education.
“For me, it’s the most life changing thing that the government has ever done,” Scott said. “I don’t even have to worry about that [student debt] anymore. That huge weight that I knew was coming is now gone. I can think now, ‘What do I want to do with this money? Do I want to travel? Do I want to save this money? Do I want to buy a house?’ … I can see an actual, tangible impact in my life.”
Democrats in Georgia may be hoping student debt forgiveness will energize Black voters ahead of the state’s contentious midterm elections, but how Black borrowers feel about the loan forgiveness program seems to vary widely based on their age and debt level.
South Fulton resident Jarrod Grant had a different take. The 53-year-old Clark Atlanta University doctoral candidate was listening to the news in his car when Biden made his highly anticipated announcement.
For Grant, who said he owes more than $50,000 in student loans, the debt forgiveness news was “anti-climatic.”
He recalled Democratic leaders in Washington urging Biden to cancel an even higher amount in student loans not long after his victory in 2020. For older Black borrowers pursuing advanced degrees, Grant says $10,000 to $20,000 is still not enough.
“I’m facing a reality that I will have to have multiple streams of income to maintain my home, the uncertain viability of future marriage, and knowing I’ll remain in the workforce … well past retirement age,” he said. “I’m certain I’ll be working well into my 70s, not only because I love my career, but due to the reality of debt I’ve acquired.”
Younger borrowers who spoke to Capital B Atlanta say they are concerned with other issues that affect them more than student loan debt.
Clark Atlanta freshman Shaniyah Dickerson had a lot on her mind during her first day of classes, but Biden’s executive order wasn’t the foremost thought. That would be the recent reinstatement of Georgia’s 2019 law restricting abortions. The 18-year-old from Brooklyn, New York, wants to study business administration and said she doesn’t follow politics closely. She’s registered to vote and supports forgiving student loans, especially after borrowing money to fund her own education.
Both developments, Dickerson said, have inspired her to be more civically engaged. The prospect of losing reproductive rights and the idea of one day seeing a Republican-led Congress that could reverse Biden’s order was all the motivation she needed.
“[Student loan forgiveness] makes me want to vote more because I feel like as soon as we get something that’s benefiting us in our future, it’s being taken away from us,” she said.
Debt cancellation alone may not be enough to boost voter turnout, according to Kurt B. Young, chair of the political science department at Clark Atlanta. Following the overturn of Roe v. Wade, fear of what Republicans in Congress will do if they retake power on Capitol Hill may be a bigger motivator for some Black Georgians to vote than anything else.
“Traditionally, the off year elections tend to be low in terms of turnout,” Young said “Student loan forgiveness, in concert with other issues … is where I think you may be able to stimulate a larger turnout than what we’ve seen.”
The loan forgiveness policy’s ramifications are more pronounced for Black borrowers in Georgia. The average borrower in the state owes more than $41,000, according to the Education Data Initiative, which is higher than the national rate. That debt burden makes it harder for many to purchase homes at a time when homeownership inequality is growing rapidly, both in the Atlanta metro area and across the country.
It’s a reality Jayme Beasley knows all too well.
Beasley graduated from Kennesaw State University in 2015, where he studied African diaspora studies and health promotion. The now 28-year-old doctoral candidate at Clark Atlanta said he has racked up about $100,000 in student loan debt. He wants to purchase a home when he’s done with school, but he currently lives with his parents.
Beasley worked three jobs as an undergraduate to help, but the rigors of his graduate and doctoral programs left little time for work outside of school. He says regardless of whether borrowers feel like the amount of forgiveness is enough, it’s important to keep following up with lawmakers in the lead-up to and after midterm elections.
“That needs to be something that you press on your congressperson more,” he said. “Can we put student loan forgiveness clauses, if you will, inside of other legislation? Are there other ways that people can pay down or off their student loan debt? How can we accommodate people that just can’t pay their student loan debt off at all? So, it started the conversation.”