El Paso native Ray Luna overcame allergies and asthma as a youngster with the help of a kind and knowledgeable physician’s assistant. Luna considered him a role model and tried to follow an academic path so that he, too, could join the medical profession to help others.

Family issues and changes of heart led him to enroll in the University of Texas at El Paso’s School of Pharmacy, where he graduated in May 2022. He passed his board exams and Walgreen’s hired him, but his sense of accomplishment was countered by the student loans that he started to accrue as an undergraduate.

He supplemented Pell Grants with additional government loans to pay for his graduate studies. To date, he owes $127,000. While the 31-year-old father of three young girls has a plan to pay off his debts, he said he would welcome any relief from President Joe Biden’s student loan forgiveness program.

Biden’s plan, announced Aug. 24, entitles individuals with annual incomes of less than $125,000 or married couples with less than $250,000 to have up to $10,000 of their federal student loans canceled. The amount could go up to $20,000 if the borrower also received a Pell Grant, federal funds awarded to undergraduates with exceptional financial need.

“This would be wonderful,” Luna said about the loan forgiveness. If all goes well, he hopes to pay off his academic debts in 2025. “I want to get these loans off my back. This (program) would help me to pay them off sooner.”

The loan forgiveness program is expected to help more than 43 million people who have student loans. Approximately 45% of those people could see their entire debt canceled, according to a White House fact sheet.

As of this April, 3.6 million Texans were borrowers who owed $120 billion in student loans, according to the Education Data Initiative.

Locally, the University of Texas at El Paso reported that 6,812, or about 34% of its undergraduates received federal student loans in the 2020-21 school year. El Paso Community College reported that 477, or about 2% of its students received federal loans that same year.

A student walks through the Union Complex at UTEP on the first day of the fall semester. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

The federal government previously paused student debt repayment in March 2020 because of COVID-19, but that ends on Dec. 31.

The Biden administration expects to have its student loan forgiveness plan application ready before the end of the year. People interested in learning more about the loan forgiveness plan should click here.

Republican critics of the plan say that it will increase inflation and that it is unfair to people who already paid back their school loans or never incurred any loans, while some Democrats say it does not go far enough in providing relief. The plan is expected to face legal challenges.

The Penn Wharton Budget Model at the University of Pennsylvania estimated that the student loan forgiveness program could exceed $1 trillion.

Dominique Baker, associate professor of education policy at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, said the student loan cancellation plan has the potential to drastically improve the financial situation of millions of people.

“While we don’t know exactly what will happen based on the current plan, causal research conducted on similar loan cancellation increased earnings and decreased the likelihood of folks defaulting on other loans or credit cards,” said Baker, whose research specialties include student financial aid. “While there are competing analyses, most independent assessments find that the cancellation will not significantly contribute to inflation, especially since payments on student loans will be restarting at the same time.”

Though a “good first step,” more must be done to create an affordable college education, Baker said.

A UTEP spokesperson said that the university had no comment about the program. EPPC’s Keri Moe, associate vice president of External Relations, Communications and Development, said the college wanted to reserve comment until after officials have more details from the U.S. Department of Education and a better understanding of how this may affect their students and financial aid office.

“EPCC knows that student debt relief and forgiveness have the potential to benefit many students,” Moe said. “As more information becomes available, we are ready to help individuals who may be eligible as much as possible.”

A decorated cap at UTEP’s May 2021 commencement ceremony. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

Another recent graduate who is interested in the program is Michelle Diaz, a resident of far East El Paso who earned her bachelor’s degree in nursing this August from Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center El Paso.

Diaz, a Kansas native, wanted to be a nurse to follow in her father’s footsteps. She enrolled at El Paso Community College for her basics and paid directly for her tuition and fees. That changed after her father stopped working due to a Stage IV cancer diagnosis. The family’s income was halved.

The 23-year-old student earned multiple scholarships and grants to include the Pell Grant, but needed subsidized and unsubsidized government loans to continue her education. She accumulated $23,000 in student debt.

“There was no way I was going to make it without the student loans,” she said. “The maximum that I could get is the maximum I got.”

Diaz, who lives with her parents, said that University Medical Center offered her a job as a cardiovascular intensive care unit nurse contingent on her passing her national licensing exam, which she will take later this month.

She was terrified at the prospect of repaying her student loans, but devised a plan. She would use her six month grace period to pay off her credit cards and then tackle her academic debts in spring 2023. Her goal was to pay more to bring down the loan’s principal to pay it off sooner.

She said that as thrilled as she was to be eligible for $20,000 in loan forgiveness, her mother was more ecstatic.

“I think my mother was more excited about the loan relief than my actually graduating,” said Diaz, who added that this program would release her of the financial stress and give her a greater opportunity to help her family. “It was a wave of relief. It felt like the start of a new life. I felt genuinely grateful at that moment. This is life changing.”

She was philosophical about the public and political push-back to the loan forgiveness program. She said she understood the frustration, but preferred to focus on how it would positively affect her life and the lives of many others.

“With everything, there’s going to be a negative to go with the positive,” she said.

Daniel Perez covers higher education for El Paso Matters, in partnership with Open Campus.

Higher education reporter for El Paso Matters in partnership with Open Campus.