Cashton Holbert spent three years wondering if the Biden administration would fulfill its promise to cancel his student loan debt.

On June 30, just as Holbert was preparing to graduate from UC Santa Cruz, he finally got an answer. In Biden v. Nebraska, the Supreme Court struck down the Biden administration’s latest attempt to cancel student loan debt for millions of borrowers in the U.S. The 6-3 ruling stated that the Secretary of Education had based the program on a false interpretation of the 2003 HEROES Act, a law that grants the federal government permission to “waive or modify” student loan repayments during a national emergency.

Holbert majored in computer science. He spent two years at a community college and two at UCSC. This October, he’ll begin paying back more than $15,000 in federal student loan debt — a process he estimates will take him ten years.

“I think it’s doable,” Holbert said. “But I wish I would’ve had that [amount] projected to me much earlier. I don’t think I was mentally prepared for what my debt would cost me.”

Holbert isn’t alone in this feeling. As a UC Santa Cruz undergrad from 2016 to 2019, UCSC Financial Aid Director Lorena Lara Rodriguez took out student loans herself – loans she’s still paying back.

“I’m hoping that relief does come along for myself and all other borrowers,” Rodriguez said.

Holbert and Rodriguez are both part of the 44 million former borrowers affected by the Supreme Court’s decision. But current student borrowers are in a different category altogether. Biden’s debt relief plan only applied to loans taken out before June 2022; students who have just started borrowing or have yet to borrow would not have been covered.

Labor organizer Tiffany Dena Loftin also took out loans during her time at UCSC. She’s currently the higher education lead at Debt Collective, a debtor’s union (the first in the U.S.) that organizes to abolish debt on a national, state, and local level. 

“The outrage that we are feeling from the 40 million families who are already borrowers should be less than the [current] students who are not being touched by student debt relief at all,” Loftin said. “And I don’t see the outrage.”

Student debt relief policymaking, in all its volatility, has been cause for both hope and hopelessness. What comes next is hard to say. Student borrowers at UC Santa Cruz have a wide variety of resources available to them, including a new federal program and on-campus financial opportunities. But some critics aren’t sure those measures are enough to curb the student loan debt crisis looming over UC Santa Cruz and the U.S. as a whole.

Rodriguez started working in financial aid advising in 2001; she’s seen crises come and go. The current federal student loan interest rate of 5.5 percent, however, means that a borrower like Holbert — who is paying back $15,000 over ten years — might end up forking over $4,534 in interest. And this rate is almost two percent higher than it was in 2016-2017. 

“To be frank with you, this is one of the highest interest rates that I have seen in my entire tenure,” Rodriguez said.

Likewise, the cost to attend UCSC is higher than it’s ever been. Between the 2013-14 and 2023-24 school years, the total cost of attendance for new in-state undergraduates living on campus increased from $33,310.86 to $41,283 per year. For new out-of-state undergraduates living on campus, the cost of attendance rose from $56,188.86 to $73,857 per year.

These often unavoidable financial hardships leave some, like Holbert, resenting the culture that pushed them to go to college in the first place.

“I’m super glad that I did go to college, but I don’t know if I could do it for another couple years,” Holbert said. “They talk about the pros of getting into college without talking about the cons, like the debt I’m in now. That feels exploitative.”

Fortunately for borrowers, the Biden administration is still working on student loan debt relief. In a statement released the same day as the Biden v. Nebraska ruling, the White House announced their Saving on a Valuable Education (SAVE) plan, described as “a rulemaking process aimed at opening an alternative path to debt relief for as many working and middle-class borrowers as possible.”

The legal foundation of the SAVE plan is the Higher Education Act of 1965, which, according to UCSC politics professor Daniel Wirls, makes the program much less vulnerable to legal challenge. This is due to the wording of the act, which gives the executive branch more latitude in transforming loan repayment programs. But the political window for a massive, sweeping action that would erase student debt for millions has closed.

“Legislative action is dead in the water,” Wirls said. “It’s mostly whether Biden can come up with something like the [SAVE plan], get it going, and have it have a real impact in a reasonable amount of time.”

At the moment, Wirls doesn’t see the political will needed to resolve the student debt problem quickly — not on the federal level, anyway.

Others, however, see routes outside of federal programs.

Rodriguez highlighted the many financial opportunities available to UCSC students. Some, like the Regents Scholarship, are awarded to undergraduates based on academic achievement and don’t require any additional work. Others, like Resident Assistant (RA) positions, saddle yearlong work commitments with perks like free housing and a free meal plan. Three-year, “4+1,” and summer session-heavy graduation pathways can also help reduce overall higher education costs.

Above all else, Rodriguez urges all students to develop a relationship with the Financial Aid office.

“Students establishing that one point of contact — reaching out and saying, ‘this is very overwhelming for me, can you walk me through how I go about this?’ — [helps us] point them to the right resource,” Rodriguez said.

During her time at UCSC, activist Tiffany Dena Loftin did all the things Rodriguez recommended. She became an RA, pursued a work-study program, and got involved in student government to help mitigate her college costs.

Ultimately, tuition costs rose, and Loftin had to take out more loans. After attending higher education conferences and learning from others in student government, Loftin started contemplating a different reality — one where student loan debt doesn’t even exist.

Rather than relying on institutions like the Supreme Court for help, Loftin trusts young people’s ability to advocate for themselves. Her advice to aspiring activists?

“Organize yourselves around the agenda that you want,” Loftin said. “Is it just student loan debt cancellation, or is it free college? Is it also ‘stop increasing tuition?’ Is it also ‘increase the Pell Grant?’ Y’all need to sit down and have that meeting, and it needs to be national.”