Angela Davis Fegan, a visual artist based in Pilsen, has more than $100,000 in federal student debt she borrowed to complete an M.F.A. at Columbia College Chicago. She thinks she may be able to get her balance reduced under the financial hardship category. “Not having to do loan payments means that I could invest in myself or have some sort of stability -- not like indefinite precarity,” she said. Photo: Jim Vondruska for the Chicago Sun-Times

President Joe Biden announced plans this week to provide student debt relief to nearly 25 million more borrowers. But some Chicagoans are skeptical they will get the assistance they need.

“Honestly, the idea of having hope that anything’s going to help is pretty low at this point,” said Julie Unold, a high school counselor in Southeast Chicago. “I just feel like I’m going to die paying off my student loans.”

Biden’s newest proposal aims to reduce or cancel student debt for those with financial hardship, those who have been repaying their loans for 20 years or more, and those with runaway interest. Borrowers eligible for relief through an existing program for which they haven’t applied could get automatic cancellation under the proposal as well, White House officials said.

“While a college degree still is a ticket to the middle class, that ticket is becoming much too expensive,” the president said this week. “Today, too many Americans, especially young people, are saddled with too much debt.”

Angela Davis Fegan, a visual artist based in Pilsen, has more than $100,000 in federal student debt she borrowed to complete an M.F.A. at Columbia College Chicago. She thinks she may be able to get her balance reduced under the financial hardship category.

“If that pans out then that could eliminate half my debt,” said Davis Fegan, who also owes $60,000 in private loans she took out for an undergraduate degree she completed in 2007. “It would radically change my life.”

Davis Fegan said she might be able to buy property so she doesn’t have to be subject to unaffordable rent increases.

“Not having to do loan payments means that I could invest in myself or have some sort of stability — not like indefinite precarity,” she said.

Unold said she read about Biden’s pitch — but doubts she belongs to any of the groups targeted for relief.

“I just always hate how programs seem to miss out on the people who are trying to do the right thing and are working hard and they’re stuck in the middle, where you don’t qualify for the things for people who truly need it,” she said. “But you can never feel like you’re good. You’re like three paychecks away from something bad happening.”

Unold said she’s paid off the loans she took out to get her undergraduate degree at DePaul University, but still has more than $50,000 in debt that she borrowed for graduate school.

“To be a high school counselor, you need to have a master’s degree in counseling,” said Unold, who was the first in her family to go to college. “In order to get that graduate degree, I’ve taken out a lot of debt. And unless you’re working in one or two places that pay well, you’re not making a lot of money, and it becomes very difficult.”

Recently she had to take out more student loans to help send her daughter to college and anticipates having to borrow even more to help her son, now a high school senior, pay for college tuition as well.

“I kind of felt like I got stuck with my loans and my kid’s loans,” said Unold, who is Mexican-American and grew up on the South Side.

Illinois residents hold more than $60 billion dollars in student debt, according to the Education Data Initiative. People of color, like Unold, are disproportionately impacted.

The Pew Research Center found that Black and Latino households, on average, hold a fraction of the wealth of white households and need to borrow more to pay for college. According to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, more than 90 percent of Black students and 72 percent of Latino students take out loans to attend college, compared to 66 percent of white students.

Federal officials say 91,280 student loan borrowers in Illinois have received $4 billion in relief so far through the Biden administration’s efforts, including the income-driven SAVE repayment plan and discharge through Public Service Loan Forgiveness. The Department of Education has not yet released the racial demographics of those borrowers.

The Education Trust, a nonprofit advocacy group, predicts many of the nearly 25 million Americans who would get help under Biden’s newest proposal are people of color and borrowers with low incomes.

“Due to hefty interest rates, [they] owe more money now than they did when they first took out their student loans,” the group said in a statement. “If implemented, this rule could also yield up to $20,000 in student debt relief for millions more Americans.”

Unold and others recognize that is a big if. Previous efforts to help student loan borrowers have been legally challenged and at times defeated by conservative lawmakers.

Last year the Supreme Court overturned an attempt by the president to cancel $10,000 or $20,000 in student debt for more than 40 million federal student loan borrowers

More recently, a group of Republican-led states is suing to block the SAVE plan, an income-driven repayment plan introduced by the Biden administration that offers a faster path to cancellation and no monthly payments for low-income borrowers. Unold signed up for the plan to make her payments more affordable. It’s uncertain how she would manage without it.

She’s considering a side hustle in private counseling, or even leaving education altogether to set up a private practice. That’s despite the fact that she loves her job.

“You tell students, ‘The reality is that, to be a counselor, you’re going to have to go get an undergrad degree and go to grad school to get a job. Do you want to do that much school to make this much money?’” she said. “Nobody’s going into education, because why would you?”

Higher education reporter for WBEZ Chicago in partnership with Open Campus.