Anger, defiance, fear over Supreme Court decision to block student loan forgiveness

"I have sworn up and down that I am just not paying on these anymore."

June 30, 2023, 2:31 PM

Fear, anger, disappointment and downright defiance were among the emotions of some of the 43 million student borrowers who can no longer dream of seeing their loan balance shrink after the Supreme Court on Friday rejected President Joe Biden's plan to erase portions of their loans.

The lawsuit, filed by Republican-led states and conservative advocates, had set off a bitter national debate on who deserves loan forgiveness following a pandemic that already kept student loan payments at bay for three years.

Now, many students say they don't know how they will be able to afford the payments once they restart this fall, while others say they might not pay them at all in protest.

Cleopatra Melton, who works as a Regulatory Reporting Analyst at a bank in Ohio and who has about $50,000 in student debt, told ABC News she is saddened by the decision.

"I was looking to be a first-time homebuyer. I really was looking for this to go through to assist me achieving that American dream," Melton, 45, said following the Supreme Court decision.

Emily Weir, a 33-year-old mental health therapist living in Nederland, Colorado, said her monthly bill will go from $0 to $2,000 -- a hefty sum that has kept her from being able to buy a home, save for retirement or consider ever starting a family.

"I think it's frustrating to see them bail out companies that make a lot of money and then ... fight us so hard on trying to get a little bit of relief. So that's definitely frustrating," she said in an interview this week.

Biden's plan would have erased $10,000 in student debt for individual borrowers who made less than $125,000, or $250,000 as a married couple, and up to $20,000 for borrowers who had also received Pell grants while they were in school.

Nearly 20 million borrowers would have seen their debt erased entirely. Brea Govan, 30, is disappointed she will have to repay the $9,000 of debt from her master’s degree at American University. She believes college affordability hits at the root of the student loan issues.

“At some point I think that there should be a cap, especially for public institutions, there should be a cap on tuition,” Govan said.

PHOTO: Demonstrators with the group, "We The 45 Million," including Melissa Byrne, center, react as they read the Supreme Court decision on the student loan cancellation program, June 30, 2023, in Washington, D.C.
Demonstrators with the group, "We The 45 Million," including Melissa Byrne, center, react as they read the Supreme Court decision on their phones on President Joe Biden's student loan cancellation program, outside the Supreme Court, June 30, 2023, in Washington, D.C. A sharply divided Supreme Court has ruled that the Biden administration overstepped its authority in trying to cancel or reduce student loans for millions of Americans.
Jacquelyn Martin/AP

René Moya, a 39-year-old tenant’s rights advocate in Los Angeles, would have seen his $62,000 in debt decrease by around one-third. Instead, he feels uncertain about the upcoming October date when repayments will begin again — not knowing how much his payments will be.

Moya had been in default on his loans at times, seeing his tax returns get seized and even his wages garnished for repayment on his debt.

"There's a lot of questions up in the air. And all of this, in some capacity or another, needs to be resolved within the next couple of months. And I'm going to have to make some tough choices about where I can cut back on my spending, what other things I can do, what kind of cutbacks I can force on my family to be able to afford this,” he said.

“These are real decisions that are now grappling with, that none of us expected to have to do," said Moya.

Moya said he, like others, had to take on other financial responsibilities in the last three years -- including becoming the breadwinner for his mother and brother, and taking on a new mortgage. He did so while banking on some amount of relief from the administration, he said, and the hope that the system would look different by the time the pause ended.

"I do feel disappointed. I feel that the President made a promise to cancel student loans and three years after the election, we find ourselves in a situation where because of that promise, a lot of us, literally 10s of millions of us made decisions with our lives to move forward,” said Moya.

“Now we find three years later, that that promise has suddenly come to nothing. And now all of the things that we did -- the tens of millions of people, all the actions that they took to be able to advance in their lives, to continue to try to have a fulfilling life -- now suddenly, that those actions are in jeopardy because the president failed to do the right thing in the right way,” Moya said.

Ashley Robinson, 33, an independent contractor who works with nonprofit organizations in Washington, D.C., says she is among those Americans considering not paying the government back out of frustration.

"I have sworn up and down that I am just not paying on these anymore," she said.

Robinson estimates that she’s already paid about $33,000 toward her $50,000 loan balance since graduating from Elon University and Columbia University. She said she’s always been employed and even bought her own home during the pandemic, as well as helping to care for her parents who struggled with health issues.

But her balance, she said, has barely budged because of the interest imposed by her federal loans.

"It’s like throwing money out the window and setting it on fire," Robinson said. "You're trying to make these payments -- I know I've made at least 100 at this point -- but they haven't gotten anywhere. So it literally is like a hamster wheel. You're just spinning your wheels."

Mass delinquency is an idea espoused by at least one advocacy group called the Debt Collective, which hopes to form a kind of union of defiant borrowers despite the personal risk of wage garnishment and a ruined credit score.

It's also a prospect that the Education Department warned would happen absent relief. In a briefing, the administration noted that student loans have become so onerous that there could be a "historically large increase in the amount of federal student loan delinquency and defaults."

Robinson said she knows many people would tell her she shouldn't have gone to college -- especially elite private schools -- if she couldn't afford them. But, she said, she thought she was doing what she was supposed to be doing by pushing herself academically and achieving.

As for what's next, she said she's going to be "freaking out" for a while.

"I'm going to be looking at this budget and trying to figure out like, where am I going to come up with extra money for this?” she said.

On Friday, the Supreme Court sided with Republican plaintiffs in a 6-3 opinion that insisted the Education Department doesn't have the authority to erase debt.

While the White House argued the program was needed to give individuals "breathing room" after the pandemic -- much as it had for small businesses by forgiving their pandemic loans -- Republicans argued it was a one-sided bailout that unfairly left taxpayers on the hook.

The ruling raises questions about what happens next. Under law, the administration is required to resume payments by October, although it is possible the Biden administration will allow a grace period before an account is flagged as delinquent. One potential impact of the court could be a cascade of student defaults, either because individuals can't afford the payments or because they are too angry to pay them.

Americans owe some $1.6 trillion to the Education Department.

Natalia Abrams, president and founder of Student Debt Crisis Center, says the fight is far from over. Biden has other legal options, she said, adding that mass defaults would have a domino effect on the economy.

"The president promised. He promised both as candidate and as president and stood up there last August and said he was going to cancel student debt and he has to keep to his promise," she said.