9 Unelected Justices Will Decide on Financial Fates of Millions With Student Debt

The Supreme Court heard two cases arguing the legality of a Biden administration program to cancel up to $20,000 in student debt per person.

9 Unelected Justices Will Decide on Financial Fates of Millions With Student Debt
Photo:Alex Wong (Getty Images)

The Supreme Court heard oral arguments for two cases challenging President Biden’s student loan forgiveness program on Tuesday, as the justices prepare to issue rulings that could decide whether tens of millions of Americans qualify for up to $20,000 of their student debt to be forgiven. The first case, Biden v. Nebraska, involves a coalition of Republican-led states arguing Biden’s administration doesn’t have the authority to erase thousands in student debt. And the second, Department of Education v. Brown, questions whether students excluded from Biden’s policy have the standing to sue the administration, and whether Biden’s plan is legal as a whole.

Last summer, Biden announced that his administration would forgive $10,000 of federal student debt for borrowers who make less than $125,000 per year (and $20,000 for those who received Pell Grants)—somewhat fulfilling a key promise he made on the 2020 campaign trail. At the time, he also announced an extension to the freeze on federal student loan payments. Both cases challenge not just Biden’s plan, but also his administration’s repeated actions to pause student debt collection throughout the pandemic—as people weren’t able to work and struggled to pay a range of bills.

Throughout Tuesday’s oral arguments, the justices’ comments implied they may vote along ideological lines. Conservatives questioned the “fairness” of the program to others who have paid off their debt: “Why was it fair to the people who didn’t get arguably comparable relief, not maybe that their interests were outweighed by the interests of those who were benefited or they were somehow less deserving of solicitude,” asked Justice Samuel Alito, who’s memorably quoted an English jurist who favored burning witches at the stake. (Some context: The cost of attending a four-year public institution increased by roughly 15-fold in the last 50 years, while the minimum wage plummeted.)

In response, Justice Sonia Sotomayor argued there’s an “inherent unfairness in society because we’re not a society of unlimited resources,” while Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson questioned, “whether or not the same fairness issue would arise with respect to any federal benefit programs.”

Meanwhile, despite how Justice Clarence Thomas is the only justice who’s previously written about his own struggles with the “crushing weight” of student debt, Justice Amy Coney Barrett was the only conservative justice who asked questions that were skeptical of the challenges to Biden’s program. In particular, Barrett questioned whether the states suing the Biden administration even have the standing to do so.

In any case, thanks to these two legal challenges, the financial fates of nearly 45 million student loan borrowers depend on nine, exorbitantly rich, unelected officials. These borrowers owe a combined $1.7 trillion in student loans, and Black women are more likely than any other demographic to struggle with student debt. Last August, Jezebel spoke with a handful of borrowers, some of whom echoed the general consensus that Biden’s debt forgiveness plan was a step in the right direction but not enough for those with tens if not hundreds of thousands in debt.

One borrower told Jezebel he dropped out of pharmacy school after 1.5 years, but over the course of that period, took out “more than $100,000 in student debt.” It’s worth noting between 2011 and 2017, nearly 40 percent of people who took out student loans didn’t complete their education in that time period. An orthopedic surgeon told Jezebel she has nearly $200,000 in student debt after making the “big financial mistake” of getting married: With her and her husband’s incomes combined, she went from “being expected to pay about $200 in loans per month to approximately $1,800.”

Another borrower working in education advocacy and struggling with $80,000 in student loans told Jezebel she’s trying to use the Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF), but is unable to access it—a study from earlier this year found that, of the nine million borrowers eligible for PSLF, just two percent have actually received relief. A public health master’s student with student debt called the national student debt crisis a “public health” issue, as lacking “investment in the public health workforce” ultimately hurts communities seeking care. She said most of her classmates had incurred at least $70,000 in loans.

The Cut also spoke to borrowers who have been able to buy a house, have savings for the first time in their lives, or were able to not feel guilty about getting sick and missing work, thanks to pauses in student debt collection.

And just as the debt crisis carries outsized harm for communities of color and people who don’t come from generational wealth, victims and survivors of domestic violence are also disproportionately impacted. A 1990s federal program that allowed married couples to consolidate their student loans to pay a lower interest rate offered victims of abuse no option to separate their loans from their abusers until Congress passed the Joint Consolidation Loan Separation Act in 2022. In general, financial abuse—for example, intentionally tanking a partner’s credit score or taking out massive loans in a partner’s name—is among the most common forms of domestic abuse. Being entrapped in massive debt often means being entrapped in long-term abusive relationships.

Department of Education v. Brown and Biden v. Nebraska are just the latest cases in which the Supreme Court will rule on policies with massive ramifications for the day-to-day lives of millions—months after decimating reproductive rights and basic legal rights for people facing criminal charges. Given conservative justices’ sustained disregard for the people they supposedly serve, I’m not holding my breath.

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Share Tweet Submit Pin