Every semester, Cornell students take out loans to pay University tuition and fees, which have continually risen over the past several years. Total estimated cost of attendance this academic year was $83,296 for endowed colleges, and $62,798 for state contract colleges.
As of Aug. 24, a program announced by the Biden administration may help defray some costs for current Cornell students and graduates with student loans to pay back.
According to the Federal Student Aid division of the U.S. Department of Education, for borrowers with an individual income of less than $125,000 or or a household income less than $250,000, the U.S. Department of Education plans to cancel up to $20,000 in student debt for Pell Grant recipients and those with loans from the Department of Education. Up to $10,000 in student debt is proposed to be canceled for non-Pell Grant recipients.
Delilah Hernandez ’22 is one of the cofounders of the Basic Needs Coalition, an organization that aids first generation and low income students on campus.
Hernandez said that while she is disappointed that private loans have not been forgiven in any capacity by Cornell University and the U.S. government, she believes that the policy is a first step towards eradicating the issue of student loan debt.
“This means so much to students and alumni who have taken out federal loans and have had to juggle with the different ways to make payments on time,” Hernandez said. “The policy has helped relieve so many Cornellians from the financial strain of thousands of dollars in debt.”
P.J. Brown ’25 is one student who believes that the information released by the Biden administration on the loan forgiveness program needs more development.
“I think they need to clarify some of their language on [its relevance to] current students,” Brown said.
However, Brown believes that for many college graduates, the program will help them out of “really tough positions.”
Amisha Chowdhury’23, another cofounder of the Basic Needs Coalition, referenced the disproportionate impact student loans have on first generation, low income students, and students of color.
“Biden’s student loan forgiveness is a step towards the right direction, but it is not enough,” Chowdhury said. “Student debt is a major stressor that prevents low-income, first-generation, Black and Brown students from building wealth for themselves and their families. We’re told that we have to get into college to climb up the social ladder, but you’re trapped once you’re in here.”
Chowdhury said that students from low-income families bear the extra responsibility of generating wealth for themselves and their families, compared to students coming from generational wealth.
“Building wealth… is extremely difficult to do with the burden of student loans,” Chowdhury said.
Brown, too, was hopeful that the program would help reduce his own student loans.
“If it cut mine in half, it would obviously be great,” Brown said.
Isaac Herzog ’23 said that while the loan forgiveness initiative does not personally apply to him, he has been following the issue from an “academic standpoint.”
Herzog said he has noticed some “selfish” reactions to the announcement of Biden’s student loan relief initiative.
“Some people say, ‘Well, I paid my loans, why can’t others do the same?’” Herzog said, pointing out what he described as a “logical fallacy” in the statement. He called this type of reaction a failure to empathize with intense structural issues.
“It’s a pretty uniquely American experience that our education is so expensive, as students at this institution are well aware of,” Herzog said, citing that educational costs are outpacing aid. The Biden administration’s plan is a start in the right direction, according to him.
Hernandez said that the Basic Needs Coalition is working to curtail the offering of private loans to students by the University, which she described as a “go-to” action of the Financial Aid office.
“We hope that our upcoming workshops, policy changes, and media presence will prevent students from opting into a private loan by guiding students on how to access resources on our campus,” Hernandez said. “Bringing awareness and providing accessibility options for students in navigating essential resources can reduce the amount of debt that many students are stuck with.”
Chowdhury added that low-income students at Cornell are often told to take out loans to pay for basic necessities including housing, food and medical care. She noted that the Basic Needs Coalition began its advocacy by providing students with resources about federal programs such as SNAP, which provides food stamps and Medicaid, for health insurance so that they would not need to take out additional loans to feed themselves or access healthcare.
“It’s not feasible for low-income students to take up loans when we’re already trying to lift ourselves and our families from existing poverty and debt,” Chowdhury said.
She believes that there is still much work to be done, citing that the student loan forgiveness program is a one-time initiative. The plan is also expected to face legal challenges.
“Future low-income students who are forced to take up loans will not benefit from this,” Chowdhury said. “Cornell is credited for being a need-based aid institution, but that doesn’t mean the aid we receive is enough to sustain all students. Many low-income students are still having to take out loans to feed and house themselves, and the Biden plan is not enough to address this student debt crisis that will continue to impact students in the future.”
For more information on the student loan forgiveness program, the White House has released a fact sheet.