When Sarah Reale graduated from Utah State University in 2010 with a master’s degree in politics and policy, she brought with her an accumulated $55,000 debt in government-backed student loans.

More than a decade later, she is still repaying those loans. Her current loan balance is $42,054, which is beyond frustrating to Reale, who worked full time throughout college in food service, a grocery store and eventually, on-campus jobs at USU, while earning her undergraduate and graduate degrees.

“And I did everything right. I made every payment on time. I did my due diligence. I worked in public service. I went to a state institution. I only had $55,000 worth of debt and I cannot get out of this debt. That is not the way it should work,” said Reale, who teaches at Salt Lake Community College and is the college’s director of digital marketing.

It comes as no surprise that Reale supports the Biden administration’s initiative to relieve $10,000 of federal student loan debt for borrowers whose households earn less than $125,000, and up to $20,000 for people who went to college on Pell Grants.

The plan is currently tied up in court challenges.

“My best case for forgiveness is that the systems have failed our students. No one thought about or considered the rising costs of higher education and the impact that would have on students,” said Reale, who also serves on the Utah State Board of Education, which oversees the state’s K-12 public education system.

“The fact that the government has charged such high interest rates on these borrowers is unfair,” she said, explaining that interest rates on her loans have ranged from 2% to 12% and her required income-based loan payments have, at times, risen to amounts wildly disproportionate to her income.

While Reale firmly supports even partial loan forgiveness, many Utahns do not, according to a recent Deseret News/Hinckley Institute of Politics poll.

Fifty-five percent of 801 registered Utah voters polled by Dan Jones & Associates said they disapprove of the Biden administration’s plan for partial loan forgiveness.

Meanwhile, 42% said they approve and 3% said they “don’t know.”

Sarah Reale teaches U.S. government and politics at the Salt Lake Community College Jordan campus in West Jordan on Wednesday, April 5, 2023. Less than half of Utahns support President Joe Biden’s student loan forgiveness plan and Reale is still trying to pay off her students loans. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

The poll, conducted March 14-22, has a margin of error of 3.46 percentage points.

The executive branch’s loan forgiveness program had high support among Utahns ages 18-40. Among people with bachelor’s degrees, 47% said they strongly disapproved of Biden’s plan and 10% said they somewhat disapprove.

Among respondents who identified as Democrats, 77% said they strongly supported loan relief while 66% of those who identified as Republicans said they were strongly opposed.

Biden’s plan has had vocal critics, among them Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, who said in a press release that it “makes no sense” to cancel some $400 billion in student loan debt.

“This decision would not only be unfair to those who already repaid their loans or decided to pursue alternative education paths, but it would be wildly inflationary at a time of already historic inflation,” he said.

Still others argue that they did not have the opportunity to attend college so they should not be saddled, as taxpayers, with others’ debts.

Reale said she views loan forgiveness as no different from other bailouts the government has provided over the years, whether it was the automobile industry or the financial services industry.

The primary difference is that students didn’t benefit from the shifting landscape in student loan servicing that continues to saddle borrowers with debt due to high interest rates and challenges tracking loans that have been sold to other loan servicers, she said.

Reale, who has worked in higher education for more than a decade, believed she would be able to retire her debt under the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program.

That didn’t materialize either because when she consolidated her loans — upon the advice of a government loan servicing employee — she lost years of credit for on-time payments.

The student loan landscape is so complex that Reale finally gave up trying to navigate her appeals and hired GradFin, which helps borrowers refinance loans at lower interest rates and stay in compliance with the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program.

Sarah Reale teaches U.S. government and politics at the Salt Lake Community College Jordan campus in West Jordan on Wednesday, April 5, 2023. Less than half of Utahns support President Joe Biden’s student loan forgiveness plan and Reale is still trying to pay off her students loans. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

Reale, who teaches U.S. government and politics, said she questions whether most people understand how complex student loan programs are or simply how expensive it is to seek a college degree.

One of her students told her he was unable able to attend class because he didn’t have gas money to travel to campus.

“I was like, ‘I get it. OK. Thank you for being honest with me and I hate this for you.’ But that’s the reality that our students are living in. The fact that they’re still here, showing up and wanting to do this, I think, is huge,” she said.

But the student’s experience illustrates the thin margins that are a reality for many college students. Financial aid packages may cover tuition and books but the cost of housing and groceries have become untenable for many Utahns, let alone college students of very limited means.

Biden’s new student loan plan: Cut payments in half, rein in interest accrual
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It is unclear if the Biden plan will be realized because the Supreme Court is considering whether the executive branch has the constitutional power to relieve student debt.

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Going into borrowing for college, Reale said she fully intended to retire her debt herself. But more than a decade later, after dutifully making her payments on time and still owing close to what she borrowed in the first place, she would welcome partial forgiveness.

As a government teacher, Reale said she ordinarily would be in line with the 30% of Utahns who told Dan Jones & Associates pollsters that they support loan forgiveness but believe Congress should pass laws to enact the policy.

But given the current sharp political divide in Congress, Reale said she doubts that is possible.

“Congress is so polarized that it’s hard to get any sort of agreement whatsoever. So the urgency of this, to me, falls to the executive branch. I do believe it is within the executive branch’s powers to forgive student loan debt.”

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