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Black leaders and activists continue to push for student debt cancelation

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

The movement for federal student loan cancellation ran into a wall this summer when the U.S. Supreme Court struck down President Biden's big debt relief plan. Next month, government shutdown or not, millions of borrowers will be expected to get back to paying those student loans. But at a recent meeting of Black leaders and activists, the message was clear. The fight for debt cancellation is not over. NPR's Cory Turner reports.

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AYANNA PRESSLEY: Good afternoon. It is wonderful to be here with you.

CORY TURNER, BYLINE: Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley, a Massachusetts Democrat, has been a fierce advocate for cancellation.

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PRESSLEY: I will not mince words. Let me state it plainly. Student debt cancellation is essential.

TURNER: Pressley was moderating a panel recently on student debt with the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation. She pointed out Black students have to borrow more to attend college than their white peers and are more likely to default because of generational wealth and opportunity gaps that are older than the country itself.

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WISDOM COLE: We are fighting an uphill battle.

TURNER: Another panelist, Wisdom Cole with the NAACP, drew a straight line between debt relief and America's original sin of slavery.

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COLE: Broad-based cancellation is one of the only solutions that is closest to reparations in America today.

TURNER: New research suggests Black college grads born in the 1970s and '80s have been so burdened by student debt that they're not really building more wealth than Black high school graduates. In the words of Congresswoman Pressley...

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PRESSLEY: It is a crisis for Black America.

TURNER: Cole asked the crowd, which was full of well-dressed professionals of all ages...

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COLE: Raise your hand if you have student debt.

TURNER: Even the panelists seemed taken aback when just about every hand in the ballroom went up.

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PRESSLEY: OK. Somebody get this visual for me.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: I know, right?

COLE: One more time.

PRESSLEY: No, no. Ricardo, come up here.

TURNER: Pressley called a member of her staff up to the stage to take a picture of this sea of raised hands.

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PRESSLEY: You know, I have to keep reminding folks, this is not an appeal for charity or benevolence. This is an appeal for restorative justice. This is an appeal for reciprocity because it is the multigenerational, multiracial movement that delivered this White House.

TURNER: But there's still no broad-based debt relief on the horizon. And the first student loan bills in 3 1/2 years are coming due. After the panel, borrowers lined up in the back of the room for more immediate help from a team of student loan advisers.

LISA SMITH: Hi.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Hello. Hi.

SMITH: I'm Lisa.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Lisa, nice to meet you.

SMITH: I had loans that I took out in undergrad.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Yeah.

SMITH: And then I had grad PLUS loans.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: I graduated school in 2015, and it's like, I've had at least three servicers.

SMITH: The first time that I actually looked at how much debt I had, like...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Yeah.

SMITH: ...Oh, my gosh, this is, like, an alarming number.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: Count your payments, right?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Yeah.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: If you think, hey; if I'm at 120; you're telling me I'm at 80...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Yeah.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: ...We got a problem, right?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: It's really tough because we know how hard it is to get in touch with servicers.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: There is a new income-driven repayment plan called SAVE. That remaining interest does not continue to accrue.

SMITH: Thank you so much.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: No. Thank you.

SMITH: That was very, very helpful.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: OK.

TURNER: Borrower Lisa Smith said she and her mother both took out loans so she could go to college - debts she's now determined not to pass on to her own young daughter. Cory Turner, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Cory Turner
Cory Turner reports and edits for the NPR Ed team. He's helped lead several of the team's signature reporting projects, including "The Truth About America's Graduation Rate" (2015), the groundbreaking "School Money" series (2016), "Raising Kings: A Year Of Love And Struggle At Ron Brown College Prep" (2017), and the NPR Life Kit parenting podcast with Sesame Workshop (2019). His year-long investigation with NPR's Chris Arnold, "The Trouble With TEACH Grants" (2018), led the U.S. Department of Education to change the rules of a troubled federal grant program that had unfairly hurt thousands of teachers.