Temple students, alumni reflect on Biden’s successes and failures in loan debt relief

While Biden has canceled billions in student loan debt, it hasn’t reached the extent or demographic many students originally thought.

Though Biden has canceled billions in student loan debt, many students feel it has not gone far enough. | FERNANDO GAXIOLA / THE TEMPLE NEWS

The Biden-Harris administration has canceled $153 billion in federal student loan debt since Biden was inaugurated in 2021, impacting millions of borrowers. While Biden has canceled the most debt of any president in American history, the amount forgiven is a third of his original plan.

More than 40 million Americans, 13% of the population, hold federal student loans. Having student loan debt impacts the ability to buy a house or a car, among other things, and can damage a credit score if the borrower struggles with repayments.

“Everybody tells you, ‘After college, it’s gonna be so great. You’re gonna have your degree and you’re going to have a job,’” said Gary Lawery III, a 2021 political science alumnus who graduated $18,000 in student loan debt. “For me, the very next day after graduation, after walking the stage, it was dreadful. As in, what am I going to do? Where am I going to work? And how am I going to pay for these loans?”

As Biden’s first term comes to an end, Temple students and alumni reflect on the administration’s campaign promises and what they believe has been accomplished.


In 2022, the Biden administration planned to cancel up to $20,000 in loans for Pell Grant recipients and $10,000 for non-Pell Grant recipients, if they were under a certain household income. The plan would have addressed more than $400 billion in student loans, which 26 million borrowers applied for that summer. The Supreme Court blocked the plan from proceeding, deeming the legal basis for the plan unconstitutional.

Cameron Ryan, a senior political science major graduating in May, spent his first two years in community college to avoid taking on too much cost before transferring to Temple. 

After three years of being careful with his finances, a slight increase in Ryan’s income no longer qualified him for as much Pell Grant money as he needed to cover tuition. He was forced to take out loans to pay for his final year, impacting his future plans.

“I definitely feel like if you have student loan debt, you’re pressured into trying to find something that’s going to help you pay off the loan debt, because it’ll follow you and there’s not really an escape from it,” Ryan said. “You can claim bankruptcy from other loans, but student loan debts will always follow you. There’s definitely pressure to get something that’s a higher paying job at school, which can be hard because you’re just starting your entry-level job opportunities.”

Ryan’s concerns about his debt contributed to his interest in getting a sales or marketing job after graduation, where he believes he could earn more money at an entry-level.

A June 2021 survey by the National Association of Realtors, a commercial organization focused on real estate, found that 72% of Gen Z employees made career decisions based on their student loan debt, including taking a second job and staying in or choosing a job that didn’t match their career or interests.

Ryan is the type of student debt holder who would have benefited from the 2022 plan: a Pell Grant recipient who could’ve had all his debt erased. As he approaches graduation, Ryan said he’s still holding out hope for a successful debt forgiveness program from Biden.

“If it wasn’t blocked, he would have definitely won over a lot of younger voters,” Ryan said. “I think they concern a lot of younger voters. A lot of younger voters also tend to be a lot more progressive than he is. I don’t think it’s his fault that I didn’t go through. He did do some forgiveness, but if he’s able to somehow navigate that to make it happen before election time, he’ll definitely win over a lot of people.”

A March 2024 survey by the American Federation of Teachers found that 48% of voters responded that canceling student loan debt is an important issue to them in the upcoming election. Seventy percent of Gen Z respondents said it was “somewhat” or “very” important to them. 

Lawery, who currently works as the Deputy Township Manager of Willingboro, also finds the issue of student loan debt politically important to him.

“Joe Biden wasn’t my first option back in 2020, but as the Democratic field consolidated, [he] was the option and the plan around student debt relief,” Lawery said. “I think [student debt relief] was something that galvanized a bunch of young folks but the lack of energy and enthusiasm and attention to follow up after the election and after taking office is something that’s a bit concerning to myself, and I’m sure it’s concerning to other folks my age. It’s a reason why there’s a lot of us now but we’re just not excited about this coming fall this coming election.”

Lawery’s payments began at the end of last year, so he was afforded some time before he had to start repaying. He had hope before then for Biden’s 2022 plan, which he was eligible for and could have completely eliminated his debt. Lawery said he was devastated when it was blocked.

He hasn’t started his repayments because it isn’t doable on his salary with his other financial concerns like rent, but the consequences of having that debt affected Lawery’s plans for buying a car or house.

“The initial plan was good,” Lawery said. “It would have impacted so many people and lifted so many folks out of poverty and gave new opportunities to a bunch of young people who are already behind the curve. We talk about the American dream and getting there: buying your first house and doing a bunch of adult things. Unfortunately, a lot of us aren’t able to experience that because we’ve racked up so much debt.”

While Lawery celebrates that some individuals have had their debt canceled, he has hopes for more future leaders to focus on the issue.


Biden has successfully canceled debt through improvements made to pre-existing systems like Public Service Loan Forgiveness, a program established in 2007 that erases all of a borrower’s debt if they’ve worked in a public service job for a certain amount of years and maintained their repayments. 

Alexander Hamling graduated from Temple in 2006 with a Master’s degree in medicine and now works as a pediatrician in Seattle. After Biden broadened the eligibility for PSLF, Hamling consolidated his loans to take advantage of the situation. He received a letter last year informing him that all $90,000 of his student loan debt was forgiven.

“You look at the emblem and think ‘Okay, I recognize this as the company I had to consolidate things into for this government program,’” Hamling said. “You get worried that for some reason, they would say, ‘No, something’s wrong. You didn’t pay enough,’ or ‘We ran out of money and now your new rate is five percent.’ I almost felt like it was gonna shoot me in the foot. It was a little bit of apprehension, a little bit of fear, but then once you read the whole [letter,] certainly it’s excitement. It feels like a weight off your chest. There’s just much more flexibility across the board.”

While Hamling acknowledged the freedom and relief he felt and knows other individuals would if they had their debt relieved, he doesn’t believe student debt forgiveness plans holistically address Americans’ financial problems.

“It seems disingenuous to the students, to the country, to the purpose of higher education,” Hamling said. “It didn’t necessarily seem to be aligned with anything. What does that do for the next generation? Is that the expectation, ‘I can totally get student loans and the government will pay for them?’ Why don’t we just have a government-paid program that pays for college? Why do we have to go through this back-and-forth hassle?”

Hamling believes the forgiveness incentives the wrong ideas for students and the money could have been spent in more meaningful areas. As of now, nothing has really been achieved, he said.


Biden announced a new wide-scale plan in April 2024, targeting student loan debt held by borrowers for a long period of time. 

Borrowers who have been in repayment for at least 20 years and those struggling with accumulated interest and more debt than they originally took on would benefit from the plan. It would also automatically discharge debt from borrowers who were eligible for pre-existing programs but did not enroll in them. In the following months, the administration will also announce another proposal to help borrowers who are likely to default on their loans.

The administration claimed the new plans would eliminate interest for 23 million borrowers and cancel the full amount of student debt for more than 4 million borrowers.

Like any government spending program, figuring out who is benefiting is an important factor in assessing its worth, said Samuel Rosen, a finance professor. 

“The type of household that would benefit and I think is intended as the policy is, is the ones where you can’t get a car loan, you can’t get a mortgage because of this type of debt,” Rosen said. “If you have the delinquencies, especially, that really hurts your credit score where essentially it would help those people reestablish better credit and be able to get back on track.”

By targeting people burdened by debt who are not seeing financial returns for the education they received, the administration is making up for what were essentially false promises from for-profit colleges or, during the 2008 recession, the lack of transparency required from universities about the benefits they deliver for students, Rosen said.

The plan is moving forward as a proposed regulation but still has to live through a 30-day commencement period and a review. It uses a different legal basis than the 2022 plan, which relied on the HEROES Act and the secretary of education’s power to waive debt when borrowers are affected by a national emergency, like the COVID-19 pandemic.

This time, the White House is calling on the Higher Education Act, which also gives the secretary of education the ability to waive debt without the national emergency restriction.

Whether the administration’s decisions to keep pursuing student debt relief sways voters in the November election remains to be seen.

“My expectations are focused on the Democratic party — even, for that matter, the Republican party — and just being able to elevate new people, a different generation of leaders to move the nation forward in whatever realm that is,” Lawery said. “I want America to get to a point where we’re elevating folks who have the same thoughts as the majority of Americans.”

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