LOUISVILLE, Ky. — When Marley Pomplun completes her graduate studies at the University of Louisville next summer, she expects to have around $100,000 in student loan debt. “I've joked with people that I'll probably be paying it until the day I die,” Pomplun told Spectrum News 1. “It's terrifying.”
But relief may be coming from President-elect Joe Biden. The incoming Democratic president has laid out a handful of plans in a plan to reform the student-debt system. The most high profile among them is a plan to forgive $10,000 in federal student loan debt per person.
This move, which Biden intends to ask Congress to approve in his first week, would wipe out the debt for more than 15 million Americans, according to federal data. Another 9.2 million would see their debt reduced by more than half.
Often, it’s the people with the least debt who need the most help repaying it. According to The Institute for College Access and Success, people with less than $10,00 in federal student loan debt are more likely to default on their loans than those with more. That’s often because they didn’t finish college and don’t have the earning power of those who did.
Biden’s plan also calls for a new loan forgiveness program for public servants. It would offer $10,000 in federal student debt relief for every year of “national or community service,” with a $50,000 cap.
As a social worker, Pomplun would benefit from this provision. “In my situation, I don’t feel like it's enough, but I'm grateful for any assistance whatsoever,” she said. “Because I'm a social worker, I'm not going to be making $100,000-a-year or even close to that. So anything is beneficial.”
Pomplun is among 43 million Americans and 585,000 Kentuckians saddled with student debt. The country’s student debt burden has ballooned to more than 1.7 trillion, twice what it was a decade ago. Kentuckians owe $19.1 billion of that total and those numbers are growing every year.
The problem is so big that some of Biden’s fellow Democrats don't think his plan is sufficient. Last month, Sens. Chuck Schumer and Elizabeth Warren called for Biden to eliminate $50,000 in debt per person. They also argued that he doesn’t need Congressional approval to do it. "The President of the United States has the power to broadly cancel student loan debt, help close the racial wealth gap, and give a big boost to families and our economy,” Warren said in a press release. “It's time to use this existing authority and permanently improve the lives of tens of millions of Americans."
Jennifer McDaniels is one of those Americans. At 47 years old, the former newspaper reporter is studying, or “retraining,” to become a school teacher in Harlan, Kentucky.
“There are a lot of retraining programs out here that I’m familiar with from covering the plight of coal miners in Eastern Kentucky,” she said. “They get incentives to retrain and find a new vocation and that’s what I’m doing. What I trained for is just not there anymore.”
McDaniels sees debt relief for public service as an incentive for people like her to enter a new profession without leaving home, something she’s been encouraged to do but consistently resisted.
Between her prior undergraduate studies and current Masters program, McDaniels is facing six figures of debt. “My biggest fear is, once I’ve retrained and have my new career, what I'm facing to pay off,” she said.
Under Biden’s proposal, she would see her debt burden significantly reduced after teaching for five years. “It would be an answer to prayer,” she said.
She may also qualify for the existing Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program, which requires working a qualified job, making payments for 10 years, and approval from the federal government, which hasn’t always been easy to come by.
For Carmellia Jackson, student debt relief would allow her to live the life she’s eager to get started. Months away from completing her social work studies at the University of Louisville, she also intends to work in a public service field that would allow her to take advantage of loan forgiveness.
That’s a big deal given the $100,000 in debt she’s anticipating. “I am about to start my family and move into a house, so that would make a huge difference,” she said.
For others, debt relief could allow them to between participate in life’s simple pleasures, like building a savings account and taking the occasional vacation, she said. It could also allow people to make choices that prioritize their ambitions over their financial obligations.
“Once you have financial freedom, it opens up a lot of doors and opportunities for you to chase your dreams,” Jackson said.