Chris Murray is a proud blue-collar worker.
Murray, 35, graduated from Tulsa Welding School & Technology Center’s Houston campus in 2017. It wasn’t easy. His career as a pipefitter is rife with technical intricacies that require certifications. And the tuition to learn and earn those certifications came with a $23,000 sticker price. Murray received about $6,000 in federal Pell Grants due to financial need. He, like millions of others in his generation, took out loans for the rest.
And now he — like those millions of others — is coming to terms with last week’s Supreme Court ruling, striking down President Joseph Biden’s plans to forgive student loans for about 43 million Americans, completely erasing student debt for roughly 20 million.
“There’s this fallacy out there that it’s not affecting blue-collar workers, and it’s only elites,” Murray says. “Blue-collar workers, we also had to go get certifications and go to the type of schools that you have to, to become a pipefitter, HVAC worker or crane operator. Even those people have student loans, and I think that’s lost on many people who aren’t thinking about it in that sense.”
The Supreme Court’s 6-3 decision to block Biden’s student debt cancellation plan contended the president had overstepped his authority under the HEROES Act to modify or waive student loans. But the suit against Biden, filed by six Republican-led states, is tightly tied to the idea that canceling such student debt would “force American taxpayers to pay off the student debt of an elite few.”
That’s the language used in a letter to Biden, written last September and signed by 22 governors — including those leading five of the six states in the lawsuit, as well as our own Gov. Greg Abbott.
It’s not true.
Biden’s plan posed two tiers of forgiveness: Up to $10,000 for individuals who make less than $125,000 a year, or married couples who make less than double that; and up to $20,000 for Pell Grant recipients.
An analysis by the U.S. Census Bureau found that “certain demographic groups would benefit more than others” by the $10,000 forgiveness plan. Specifically, the share of Latino Americans with an associates degree who have student loans would have dropped from 14.4 percent to 7.7 percent after the forgiveness; for Black Americans with an associate’s degree, the share would have fallen from 19.9 percent to 12.6 percent.
Women, especially, would see financial benefits, and according to the Census Bureau’s September 2022 analysis, “white men are expected to experience among the smallest reductions.”
That doesn’t sound so elite.
In fact, student loans are incredibly common. Fifty-two percent of Texas students who graduated college in 2020 had student loan debt, with an average burden of $26,273, according to the Institute for College Access & Success. That means even schools that serve a wide swath of students at relatively affordable rates result in big debt burdens: That year, 45 percent of University of Houston graduates crossed the stage with debt.
Emran Ismail, 34, graduated from UH’s C.T. Bauer College of Business in December 2016 with a degree in supply chain management. At the time, he had about $21,000 in debt — a typical amount for UH students who averaged $22,933 in debt upon graduation in 2020. Over the years, he’s been able to whittle his debt down to $14,000, chipping away with a $130 payment here and $250 there when he had some extra cash on hand.
“The Supreme Court decision really hurts,” says Ismail, who recently lost his job at Office Depot and is attending online courses to transition into a data analytics career. He’s currently living with his parents in Sugar Land, but he’d rather get a place of his own. He’d also rather contribute more to his retirement savings; but with last week’s decision, he’s planning to redirect everything he can to wipe out the student loans that he’d hoped would be wiped out for him.
“I put $60 per month into my IRA, which is not a whole lot. I would like to go and increase it, but I can’t right now,” he says.
He’s not the only one who’s putting off saving for his retirement. A 2022 poll conducted by CNBC found that 38 percent of American adults with student loans have delayed saving for retirement. And that’s not the only major milestone they’ve had to put off. Thirty-three percent have delayed buying a home; 14 percent have delayed getting married; and 16 percent have delayed having a baby.
“It’s the burden of my generation,” says Murray, who has two daughters — a 15-year-old and a 6-year-old. “I’m going to be paying for my college while my kid is paying for hers.”
His common-law wife has student loans as well. And yes, the debt has affected their union. It would be great, Murray says, to have the big official wedding. But it’s not in the budget. And now that the loan forgiveness has been overturned, that fact won’t change in the near future.
“Our generation is totally different when it comes to financial burdens, and most of it is because of student loans,” he says. “We were told that that was the way to go. We were raised in a society that told us secondary education was the way to go to have a career and be successful. It’s not just like we came up with this concept on our own.”
When Cassandra Khatri’s parents moved to America from Sri Lanka in the 1980s to escape a budding civil war, the family’s main goal was to pursue a better life.
“I was raised with, ‘Your ass is going to college,’” says Khatri, 36. So she did. She attended Seton Hall University in New Jersey, and University of Houston, accruing nearly $200,000 in debt along the way — a sum she’s certain she’ll continue paying even when her children — currently 5 and 2 — are in college themselves.
Her mother is still paying too. When Khatri began college, her parents took out $7,000 in loans; 20 years later, that loan has ballooned to $16,000 despite regular payments, thanks to interest. That’s not unique to Khatri’s family. A 2021 report by the Center for Responsible Lending and the National Consumer Law Center found that 63 percent of student loan borrowers who’d made at least one payment during the pandemic-era pause were underwater, meaning their current balances were larger than they were at the time the loans were issued.
Given Khatri’s income as a political science professor at Lone Star College-University Park, Khatri knew she would not have been eligible for forgiveness. But her disappointment on Friday centered around the diverse array of students she teaches in her classroom, most of whom are low-income, and the first in their family to attend college.
Many of her students are one generation behind her — Gen Z, as the cohort of young adults born in 1997 or later is called — and she is heartened by their political activism and desire for equity. They’ll change the world, she says. But she’d like to see the world change for them, at least a little, to make that easier for them to accomplish. Removing, or even reducing the burden of student loans could go a long way.
Biden announced Friday he will pursue loan relief through a different avenue. Within hours of the court’s decision, the U.S. secretary of education initiated a rulemaking process — likely to take months — leaning on the authority Biden says the secretary is granted through the Higher Education Act. The Department of Education is also finalizing the new Saving on a Valuable Education (SAVE) repayment plan, which ties repayment to borrowers’ incomes and has the potential to cut many borrowers’ monthly payments in half.
Murray has hope for the future. As a parent, he has to.
“Hopefully it’s better for our kids,” he says. “I don’t want the people after me to have to deal with what I dealt with when it was a burden. What kind of thinking is that?”