Growing up as the oldest child in a single-parent home, Brittany Williams longed to leave her home in Baton Rouge, Louisiana for better opportunities and challenged herself to be a role model for her siblings.
“It was my duty to get a college degree so I could show my brothers and sisters they could do the same,” said Williams, who is now a senior higher education policy analyst for The Education Trust, an advocacy organization. an organization that promotes equity in education.
Although going to college changed her life, the financial impact was stressful.
“I am a student loan borrower. I didn’t want to be, but because of the circumstances, the lack of wealth in my family, I had to be a borrower,” Williams said. “It was my choice, my opportunity, because (not) getting a college degree wasn’t an option for me.”
Her experience is far from isolated: 45 million Americans have federal student loan debt totaling $1.6 trillion, according to the White House.
And research and surveys show that student debt is linked to increased anxiety and depression. A pending Supreme Court ruling on student debt relief can only add to the stress.
To address the rising amount of college debt, President Joe Biden introduced a student loan relief plan in August 2022 that will forgive up to $10,000 of debt per person and $20,000 for those who received a Pell Grant.
But now two legal challenges to the plan have reached the Supreme Court, which could shut down the amnesty plan.
“??People take out student loans with huge hopes and dreams. It’s supposed to get them through that degree that’s going to launch them into a career and help them achieve the American dream,” said Sabrina Cereseres, special projects manager at the Student Debt Crisis Center, an organization that helps student loan borrowers to navigate the payout options.
“(But) when it comes time to pay off their loans, they make payments, they try to navigate this repayment system, and then, you know, a lot of these borrowers just see their account balances go up and up,” he said Cereseres.
Borrowers now eagerly await Supreme Court rulings on whether the federal loan forgiveness plan is valid.
The legal challenges come amid an ongoing mental health crisis.
A majority of Americans — 54 percent — report experiencing mental health issues related to student debt, according to a September survey by ELVTR, a virtual learning platform.
The survey of 2,000 people between the ages of 18 and 67 with some college experience found that 56 percent said they felt anxious about their student debt; 32% reported depression, 20% insomnia and 17% panic attacks.
The mental burden of student debt particularly affects black borrowers and students who come from poor backgrounds, who are already disproportionately affected by mental health issues.
In many studies and research papers that examine this phenomenon, two primary solutions to student loan stress are getting help from parental wealth and securing a high-paying job.
The Supreme Court heard arguments on February 28 in two legal cases challenging the constitutionality of Biden’s plan. Protesters and leaders from advocacy groups gathered around the courthouse with colorful signs and loudspeakers, chanting in the direction of the judges inside to allow the aid plan to pass.
Policy uncertainty about college affordability and whether loans will be forgiven could even add to existing anxiety for borrowers, according to Erica White, a researcher at the Center for Public Health Law and Policy.
Many borrowers don’t even know when they’ll have to start making payments again, as the Biden administration continued to impose a pause on emergency payments on COVID-19 loans until 2023. Waiting and waiting for a high court decision adds to that unpredictability, she said .
“They just feel very jaded about the Supreme Court,” White said. “I think it just adds to the lack of confidence and stress that everyone is feeling right now.”
Student debt is a public health problem, according to White.
“This court is really not motivated by public health data,” White said.
Even if the conservative majority on the Supreme Court strikes down Biden’s plan, Williams said she and other advocates will continue to explore other alternatives to make college more affordable.
“We, as well as stakeholders in higher education reform, should not consider it a loss because there is more work to be done,” Williams said. “I think my message is going to be, you know, hopeful.”
This article originally published on CNSMaryland.org and republished with permission.