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For some Laney College students, Biden’s debt forgiveness plan brings a fresh start

on September 14, 2022

The first thing Milan Merchant did when he heard all of his student loans would be forgiven was take his mom and younger brothers out to Olive Garden for bottomless breadsticks to celebrate.

Merchant, 27, studies biology and psychology at Laney Community College in Oakland. He hopes to transition from a program specialist for special needs children to becoming a neurologist, so he can help others like himself who suffer from migraines.

When the college announced free tuition this fall, he returned to school after taking a seven-year leave of absence from UC Davis, where he’d accrued $11,000 in undergraduate student loan debt. The emotional cost of the loans had quite literally become a headache.

“I became an insomniac,” he says. “The stress made my migraines more frequent, which affected my ability to be a productive worker and even be around friends.”

Laney College
Milan Merchant, 27, takes a break from studying at Laney Community College in Oakland. (Celeste Hamilton Dennis)

President Biden’s student loan forgiveness announcement last month came as a relief for community college students like Merchant — and may benefit them the most. The three-part plan aims to offset what, for many, is a lifelong burden. It includes up to $10,000 in debt cancellation for low- to middle-income borrowers. For Pell grant recipients, that amount is doubled. Personal loans do not qualify.

“A lot of students were negatively impacted by the pandemic,” says Jennifer Ma, financial aid director at LCC. “This will provide an opportunity for them to start fresh.”

California leads the country in affordable community colleges. But expenses for rent, transportation and books can be a hardship, often surpassing tuition and fees. In the 2020-21 school year, nearly 60% of LCC students received some financial aid, with about 38% qualifying for a Pell or other federal grant and 1% receiving a federal loan, government data shows. The median amount owed on those federal loans was $7,650, which could be onerous for those struggling with the rising cost of living in the Bay Area.

Thirteen years ago, Oakland resident Cyrus Paris, 33, didn’t have a bank account but was still able to take out a $5,000 federal loan for a photography class at LCC. Now Paris is back, studying culinary arts with the goal of opening a donation-based community restaurant in their Appalachian hometown. The debt has since tripled due to interest, preventing Paris from receiving grants and work study to finish school.

“There are a lot of people like me who are literally unable to get college degrees because they have debt,” Paris says.

Paris is both skeptical and hopeful that Biden’s plan will be a game-changer.

While the loudest critics of debt cancellation argue that it’s unfair and will increase inflation, social justice advocates feel it’s not enough, as Black and Latino students are more likely to take on debt than their white peers.

Christina Gutierrez, 24, is studying to become a psychologist and taking classes at both LCC and Holy Names University in Oakland. Gutierrez has $20,000 in student loan debt. Gutierrez’s mother, who emigrated from Mexico, works in a laundromat and restaurant to help her daughter pay for school. Gutierrez also works two jobs: bookkeeping during the week and slicing deli meat at at a supermarket on the weekend.

When Gutierrez heard the news that their entire loan was eligible to be forgiven, the relief was palpable.

“My mom has been carrying the burden for so long, and it’s been painful to watch,” Gutierrez says. “Now it feels like a huge weight has been lifted off our shoulders.”

1 Comment

  1. Nya Wuckert on November 8, 2022 at 5:51 am

    I’m a student at Laney College, and I think that Biden’s debt forgiveness plan is a good idea. It helps students who have been struggling to pay for college. My parents could not help me pay for the cost of my education and relevant educational tools such as https://edubirdie.org/edubirdie-legit/ , so I had to take out loans to cover those costs. However, after the loan forgiveness program is complete, I will be able to pay off my debts in full and start my life on the right foot.

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