As he poured an even layer of batter into a waffle machine, Jacob Heinzl explained how having his student loans forgiven would be a “big weight lifted.” Moments later, the waffle machine steamed. He grabbed a spatula, scraped the freshly made, wispy waffle out of the machine and quickly shaped it into a waffle cone. 

“I have my fingers crossed, but my hopes aren’t too high,” said Heinzl, 31. He estimates that he took out about $20,000 in loans for college. He works at Scoops in Bloomfield and drives for DoorDash with a car he purchased during the ongoing student loan payment pause. 

Heinzl attended Slippery Rock University for three semesters, beginning in 2010, and transferred to the Community College of Allegheny County. He has an associate’s degree in psychology and estimates that he has about $7,000 left in loans to pay off. 

“I didn’t really know what I was signing up for when I initially went to college,” he said. “I just went to college because I thought that’s what I was supposed to do.”

The weight of his debt seems to be “slowing everything down,” he said. He’s put off his dream of going to nursing school partly because of his loans. He doesn’t want to accumulate more debt.

Jacob Heinzl, 31, estimates that he took out about $200,000 in student loan debt.

As Heinzl defers his plans, thousands of Pittsburghers like him are waiting for the Supreme Court to decide whether President Joe Biden’s student loan forgiveness plan is constitutional. The court is mulling two legal challenges to Biden’s proposal, which would cancel up to $20,000 in federal student loan debt for individuals earning less than $125,000 a year. The justices are expected to rule in late June or early July, almost a year after Biden announced the relief. 

Pittsburghers were able to apply for forgiveness from October to November 2022. At that point, the Biden administration stopped taking applications after a federal judge in Texas deemed the plan unlawful. In Pennsylvania’s 12th congressional district, which includes Pittsburgh and parts of Allegheny and Westmoreland counties, an estimated 64% of eligible people — 78,800 in total — applied, according to data from the U.S. Department of Education. 

In all, more than 2 million Pennsylvanians hold student loan debt. They may have to soon start making monthly payments on their federal student loans again, after a three-year reprieve. The Department of Education has stated that those payments will resume 60 days after June 30 or the Supreme Court’s ruling, whichever is sooner. 

‘Fingers crossed’ for loan forgiveness

First-generation college student Paloma Del Toro transferred to Carnegie Mellon University from community college on a federal Pell Grant, which provides aid to low-income students. She expects to take out about $20,000 in loans. Her debt would be entirely wiped away under Biden’s forgiveness plan, as it would for nearly half of borrowers in the United States. She’s counting on that relief. 

She hopes to work for a nonprofit with her degree in international relations and politics, but without forgiveness, she said she may need to move back home to Illinois or find a less-fulfilling, better-paying job. She’s unsure what repaying her debt would entail, and her parents, who are immigrants, lack experience with the process. 

“I don’t really have much to fall back on,” said Del Toro, a junior. She added that her family doesn’t “have that type of money to be paying these loans right off the bat when we graduate.”

While a college degree is associated with substantial increases in lifetime earnings, the cost of that education has nearly doubled at four-year institutions over the last 30 years. The value of the maximum Pell Grant, meanwhile, has diminished over time. Student loan debt disproportionately burdens people of color, with Black graduates owing $25,000 more on average than their white peers, according to the Education Data Initiative.

This debt can impact not only a borrower’s future — making it more difficult to buy a house or save for retirement — but also limit their ability to invest in their communities, said Kat Welback, director of advocacy and the civil rights counsel at the Student Borrower Protection Center, a national nonprofit that aims to alleviate student loan debt. 

About 16% of borrowers were in default as of March 2022, a percentage that the federal education department has said could spike significantly if the Supreme Court strikes down the forgiveness plan. The plan would serve as “a critical lifeline” to borrowers as repayments begin, Welback said.

“For many people, it was just keeping them afloat,” Welback said of the payment pause. “For others, it may have been the first time where they’re able to say they had some sort of breathing room.” 

Taylor Stessney, 31, has about $100,000 in federal and private loans. Stessney knew they’d have to repay their debt, but they’d also planned for their education to bring greater earnings. Since graduating, they’ve worked in the government and nonprofit sector, taking on jobs in restaurants to supplement their income. 

Taylor Stessney, 31, has about $100,000 in student loan debt.

Stessney, who works full time as a bartender, was able to purchase a house with their partner partly because of the pause on payments. While they’ve made progress on tackling their debt and have generally been able to cover their expenses, Stessney said they could’ve put past payments toward their retirement or emergency savings.  

“That’s money that I can’t get back,” said Stessney, who qualified for $20,000 in forgiveness. 

The debate over forgiveness

The two legal challenges that the Supreme Court is hearing come from six Republican-led states and a conservative advocacy group, respectively. Both argue the president acted beyond his authority. 

The six states claim that Biden needed approval from Congress to cancel the debt, and that the plan would cause their states financial harm and reduce the profits of federal student loan servicers. In the second challenge, lawyers assert that because the Biden administration did not allow public input on the plan, the plaintiffs were partially or fully excluded from accessing relief and denied their procedural rights.

Loan forgiveness has been the subject of criticism beyond the two challenges. Critics have said the plan — estimated to cost about $400 billion — is too pricey. Some say that the debt relief could deepen inflation and burden taxpayers without improving college affordability. And others believe that forgiveness is unfair to those who paid off their debts or made sacrifices to avoid taking out loans. 

Tracy Baton, 59, said she believes that taking on student loans is a good bet, given the typical return on investment.

While he supports forgiveness, Nate Kegel, a third-year law student at the University of Pennsylvania, dislikes how the plan determines eligibility. He’s accepted employment at a law firm in Pittsburgh and expects to earn about $230,000, with signing bonuses — almost double the limit for an individual to receive relief. But because the plan determines eligibility based on income in 2020 or 2021, he qualifies.

The $10,000 in forgiveness he would receive would not significantly impact him, as he said he could pay off his debt relatively easily within a few years. But he recognizes that other borrowers aren’t in the same position. 

“It’s regrettable that it seemed like something that was going to happen, and now it’s being taken away, but I think America is hyper-politicized right now,” he said. 

Tyler Raub, 24, said the government should allocate taxpayer dollars to social programs that can “foster economic growth for everyone.” He returned to Pennsylvania after graduating from the University of South Carolina in the middle of the pandemic and said he has about $28,000 in loans.

“Just because one has to go through it doesn’t mean that all have to go through it,” Raub said. “Not everybody has the means or the equity to be able to support themselves. There’s nothing wrong with helping one another out and supporting one another.”

Despite the debt they now hold, several borrowers who spoke with PublicSource said they don’t regret their college education. Tracy Baton, 59, said she believes that taking on student loans is “a good bet,” given the typical return on investment. As a social worker, she could see her remaining loans wiped away through Public Service Loan Forgiveness

“There’s no part of me that would not have borrowed that money. There’s no part of me that didn’t think it was worth it,” Baton said.

First-generation college student Inês Borges, 23, a graduate of the University of Pittsburgh, finds it important to break down educational barriers in her family. Still, the loan forgiveness plan would keep her from spending years worrying about debt. 

“If students are able to either have no loans, or their loans are significantly reduced, then you can contribute more to the economy,” Borges said. “When you allow opportunities for all people to get education without being so tied down by financial issues and barriers, it’s just the  contribution of knowledge to all the different fields.”

Emma Folts covers higher education at PublicSource, in partnership with Open Campus. She can be reached at emma@publicsource.org.

Betul Tuncer is an editorial intern at PublicSource and can be reached at betul@publicsource.org.

Photos by Stephanie Strasburg, Lily Kubit and Emma Folts.

This story was fact-checked by Kalilah Stein.

Higher education reporter for PublicSource in partnership with Open Campus.