‘Student debt is a crisis’: Activists rally outside Supreme Court for loan forgiveness

A large group of people holding signs that read "Student debt cancellation is legal"
People rally outside the Supreme Court on Tuesday to show support for the Biden administration’s student debt relief plan while the court hears oral arguments in two cases challenging that plan.
(Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times)

Hundreds of debt advocates and progressive political organizers gathered outside the Supreme Court on Tuesday while justices heard oral arguments in two cases challenging President Biden’s plan to cancel up to $20,000 in student loan debt for some borrowers.

Several speakers, including some members of Congress, defended the president’s decision to cancel the debt and framed loan forgiveness as an economic and racial justice issue.

The rally was organized by a coalition of more than two dozen groups, including teachers unions and other labor unions, consumer and legal advocacy groups, and voting rights organizations.


“We are here today because student debt is a crisis, and when there’s a crisis you take action,” said Cody Hounanian, the executive director of the Student Debt Crisis Center, which advocates for protections for people with student debt. “The president has taken action, and the only thing that’s in our way are the folks in that building right now.”

With the high court expressing skepticism about Biden’s debt forgiveness, student loan borrowers are on notice that relief may not materialize.

Feb. 28, 2023

Inside, the 6-3 conservative majority court considered two central issues: whether the plaintiffs in the two cases against the debt cancellation have legal standing to challenge the plan, and whether the Biden administration implemented the plan properly.

“This should be an open-and-shut case,” Rakim Brooks, the president of Alliance for Justice, an association of groups focused on creating a more progressive federal judiciary, said in an interview. “I still have hope that the court will do what it’s supposed to ... but if they actually get to the substance of the questions, I — like everybody else — am afraid that partisanship is going to overwhelm reason.”

For years, activists on the left have called for complete student debt cancellation, pointing to the exponential rise of college costs and loan balances.

A man in suit and tie addresses an evening rally in front of the Supreme Court
Sen. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) speaks Monday night outside the Supreme Court to supporters of the student debt relief plan.
(Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times)

An increasing number of Democratic politicians have come on board. During the 2020 Democratic presidential primary, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) called for $50,000 in loan cancellation, while Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) called for wiping out all student debt.


Biden took a more modest approach and campaigned on forgiving $10,000 in debt through congressional legislation. When that proved impossible, progressives argued that Biden had the right to act by executive order and Republicans attempted to pass legislation preventing him from doing so.

As pressure grew for Biden to fulfill his promise to cancel debt ahead of the 2022 midterm elections, the administration argued that it had the right to cancel debt under the HEROES Act, the 2003 legislation that allows the secretary of Education to modify loan terms in the event of a national emergency — in this case, the COVID-19 pandemic.

His administration in August announced its plan to cancel up to $10,000 for borrowers making less than $125,000, and an additional $10,000 for Pell Grant recipients. More than 16 million people, including about 1.5 million Californians, had been approved for cancellation when the policy was blocked by the lower courts in November. The Supreme Court is expected to decide the case by June.

For some, Tuesday’s rally was about supporting a policy they believe still didn’t go far enough toward alleviating the student debt crisis, particularly for Black borrowers, who on average have higher loan balances and take longer to repay them.

“No matter what happens, stay in this fight,” Warren told the crowd Tuesday. “We cannot let a Supreme Court that is an extremist court take away the opportunity for millions of Americans to have a little racial justice, a little economic justice, a little opportunity to build more secure futures going forward.”

A man, seen from the side, holds a microphone while speaking in the rain
Rep. Robert Garcia (D-Long Beach) addresses the crowd on Monday night.
(Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times)

Many of the rally attendees were current or recent college students, some of whom waited in line overnight in the rain to get a spot inside the courtroom for oral arguments.

Lydia Zajichek, a student organizing fellow with Rise, which advocates for making college more affordable, waited until 3:30 a.m. with some of her schoolmates to get the 52nd spot in line. Though she got a scholarship to attend the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where she’s a sophomore, her parents have more than $100,000 in student loan debt.

“We came out here, we sat in the rain all night and waited until we could get the SCOTUS tickets to listen to the hearing, because it’s just that important to us,” she said.

Kaylah Lightfoot, a sophomore at the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg, Va., and a member of the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People’s Youth and College division, said she already has $12,875 in debt and anticipates taking out more student loans.

Lightfoot said that she wanted to show up for the people who couldn’t attend themselves, including her younger siblings in middle school. She said she sees the current plan as a steppingstone toward expanded access to education and, possibly, even more debt cancellation.

“If they can do this once, they can do it again,” she said.