'Step in the right direction': What Biden's student loan relief plan could mean in Illinois

Education agencies and individuals in Illinois on Wednesday began assessing what President Joe Biden's newly announced plan for student loan debt forgiveness means on a personal level and on a broader scale.

About 1.52 million student loan borrowers in Illinois hold $57.3 billion in direct student loans, said Lynne Baker, speaking for the Deerfield-based Illinois Student Assistance Commission, citing Department of Education data.

So, she said, "the Biden-Harris Student Debt Relief Plan could have a significant impact on borrowers across Illinois."

Biden's plan would forgive up to $10,000 in student loan debt for individuals earning less than $125,000 per year or families earning less than $250,000 annually. Those who received Pell Grants - aimed at undergraduates with the greatest financial need - would see the cancellation of an additional $10,000 in federal loan debt.

About 31% of federal student loan borrowers in Illinois have $10,000 or less in debt, and roughly 42% owe between $10,000 and $40,000, Baker said.

That means more than "70% of direct federal student loan borrowers in Illinois could have more than 25% of their debt canceled," she said. The 31% of Illinois borrowers who have $10,000 or less in debt "could have their debt completely wiped out under the plan."

A higher percentage of Pell recipients would see their debt canceled since they qualify for up to $20,000 in relief.

Baker cautioned that prospective students should not assume any new debt undertaken after July 1 of this year similarly will be forgiven.

John Popik of Oak Park, who earned a master's degree in counseling at Roosevelt University in 2011 and now works one of his three jobs at College of DuPage in Glen Ellyn, said the program ought to reduce his remaining debt from $90,000 to $80,000. But his most realistic path to eliminating his student debt remains putting in 10 years of public service.

"This is a good thing," the 36-year-old said of Wednesday's announcement. "It's a step in the right direction, but hopefully we can do more. ... I think this will help a lot of people. I know I'm not the norm."

More than anything else, Popik said, he hopes professions like his and the education needed to attain them won't become unattractive just because of the possible long road to paying down the debt.

Popik works two other jobs, one at an airline for his health insurance and a minimum-wage job working with disabled adults. At one point, he moved to Tampa, Florida, to work at a community college for an annual $27,000 salary.

"Full-time jobs are actually very hard to get," Popik said.

The loan forgiveness plan helps not only current and recent college students but those who taught and supported them, said Kathi Griffin, the head of the Illinois Education Association, the state's largest union representing teachers and higher education faculty.

"We know our teachers and support staff have been struggling under the weight of their student loans," Griffin said.

Griffin said thousands of educators across the state will see much-needed debt relief with Biden's decision.

"Everyone should have access to higher education without the burden of crippling student debt," she said.

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