WASHINGTON – Outside the Supreme Court Tuesday, hundreds of advocates for student loan forgiveness gathered. Music blasted over speakers and people held up handwritten signs calling on the Supreme Court to “cancel student debt now.” The anticipation surrounding the case was so high that some people camped outside the court overnight and traveled thousands of miles to gather on the day of arguments. 

The Supreme Court heard oral arguments in two cases concerning the Biden administration’s plan to eliminate up to $20,000 in student loan debt. Over 25 million borrowers applied to the program before it was blocked by courts. 

The case will be consequential for millions of people. If the justices rule in favor, the program will move forward and can forgive over $400 billion in student loan debt. However, the plan is in danger of being shot down by a conservative-leaning court. 

This is one reason Maddy Clifford, who revealed she has $120,000 in debt, traveled from Oakland, California to represent the Debt Collective, a debtors’ union. 

“We’re here to let it be known that this relief program is legal. The only reason that it has been brought to the Supreme Court is because bogus lawsuits have been thrown at the board,” she said. “They’re completely outrageous. They have no legal standing.”

Selena McCrear joined her friend from Tallahassee, Florida to join the Dream Defenders, a group that advocates for canceling all student debt. Although she doesn’t have any student loans, she wanted to be there to support family members and friends. 

“We want to ensure that we continue this fight to cancel student debt,” said Wisdom Cole, national director of the NAACP Youth & College division. He believes debt relief is within reach and has the ability to transform millions of lives. It is especially important to the Black community as nearly half of all Black graduates owe more on their federal loans after graduating with bachelor’s degrees. 

“The Black community has unfortunately been burdened with student debt,” he said. “[It] impacts people’s opportunity to become homeowners and business owners to build generational wealth. Oftentimes, it’s an interest that is occurring in a predatory way that prohibits people from actually seeing the cancellation that they want to see.” 

In the crowd some members of the Student Debt Crisis Center chose to highlight the numbers related to the student debt crisis. On their crewneck sweaters, they placed numbers like $1 trillion to represent the outstanding total debt taken on in the United States. But one of the organizers admits it’s outdated. “It grows a little every day,” he said. 

Cody Hounanian, executive director of the SDCC, placed his own total amount of student debt on his sweater: $21,441. 

Inside the courtroom, justices questioned whether the secretary of education holds the authority to totally eliminate debt and if that power lies in Congress’ hands to create legislation. 

Elizabeth B. Prelogar, on behalf of the Biden administration, argued that Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona acted within the HEROES Act of 2003, which gives him the authority to “waive or modify” any provision to student loans during a “national emergency.” According to Prelogar, the possibility of Americans defaulting on significant amounts of debt during the unprecedented times of the pandemic led to this action. 

The conservative justices often raised concerns about the separation of powers. Justice Clarence Thomas asked specific questions about the wording of “waivers and modification” and whether that encompasses a total cancellation.

“In effect, this is a grant of $400 billion, and it runs headlong into Congress’s appropriations authority,” Thomas said. 

In response, Prelogar said over the course of arguments that it is just what Congress intended. However, the state of Nebraska, represented by James A. Campbell, argued that the program extends beyond the secretary’s authority and puts other state programs at risk. 

“The HEROES Act has never even been used to forgive a single loan in the past,” Campbell said. 

Other judges chose to focus on if the Department of Education has the power for emergency action. During Campbell’s argument, Justice Sonia Sotomayor stated this issue falls under that category. 

“There’s 50 million students who will benefit from this who today will struggle. Many of them don’t have assets sufficient to bail them out after the pandemic,” she said. “They don’t have friends or families or others who can help them make these payments.”

This case could come down to whether the Supreme Court believes it is truly in the hands of Congress to make a decision concerning loans. However, if that is the case, it is unlikely that Congress will pass any legislation. Republicans control the House and Democrats control the Senate, but there is little bipartisan support on this issue. A ruling on the case will likely be decided in June. 

No matter how the justices decide on the case, Clifford said it was important for her to come to the capital to advocate for the issue. 

“College should be free and affordable for people. It shouldn’t be a death sentence,” she said.

Hundreds gathered for hours outside of the Supreme Court to urge justices to declare student loan forgiveness legal on Feb. 28, 2023. (Kaila Nichols/MNS)

Maddy Clifford was one of many who gathered at the steps of the Supreme Court on Tuesday, Feb. 28, 2023 with the Debt Collective. (Kaila Nichols/MNS)

While also sporting a button that said “student debt cancellation is legal,” Cody Hounanian, executive director of the SDCC, joined others in wearing various numbers on sweaters that represent how much they owe in student loans. (Kaila Nichols/MNS)