A first-generation college student with $146,000 in student debt says blocking Biden's relief 'feels like a really sick game': 'It's not the American dream that we were promised'

A first-generation college student with $146,000 in student debt says blocking Biden's relief 'feels like a really sick game': 'It's not the American dream that we were promised'
Student-loan borrowers are in limbo because of court challenges to President Biden's debt-relief plan.Stefani Reynolds / AFP)
  • Guilherme Lopes, 31, is a first-generation college student with $146,000 in student debt.
  • He said the recent court decisions blocking the debt relief "feels like a really sick game."

Guilherme Lopes was the first in his family to attend college in America.

After immigrating from Brazil to the United States at the age of 5, Lopes, now 31, says he didn't have the knowledge he needed to navigate the financial-aid system. When his high-school guidance counselors advised him to take out student loans to finance his education, that's exactly what he did.

Lopes took out federal direct loans under his own name, and his mother took out parent PLUS loans to help cover additional costs. His balance stands at nearly $146,000 — roughly $46,000 more than his balance upon graduating in 2013 due to interest. Like many in his position, he was excited when President Joe Biden said on the campaign trail that he would approve $10,000 in debt relief.

"An important part of my political views was to see how we are going to address student loans, whether we can get some relief, or if we can make the system a little easier for folks," Lopes told Insider. "So when Biden was running, it was really attractive early on when he said he would forgive $10,000."

However, shortly after Biden announced his one-time student-loan-forgiveness plan, a number of conservative lawsuits arose seeking to block the debt relief. Some of the lawsuits were dismissed by district courts — the Supreme Court even turned away two. But over the past week, two federal courts blocked the implementation of the debt relief, leaving millions of borrowers in limbo as they wait to find out when, or if, they will see an up to $20,000 reduction to their loan balances.


As a nonprofit worker currently making a five-figure salary, Lopes is also enrolled in the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program, which promises to forgive student debt for government and nonprofit workers after ten years of qualifying payments. But he still has a ways to go on that repayment plan, and he was hoping $10,000 in relief would help him progress quicker. He also had high hopes that it would aid his mother and brother, who also hold student debt.

"It feels really cruddy, because my mom is an immigrant woman who crossed the border and found citizenship here and went through the struggle, finally worked up the courage to take online class and got her master's all online, and she also owes money at the age of 65," Lopes said. "It's just terribly unkind. It's not the American dream that we were promised coming over."

'It just feels like a really sick game'

Last week, a federal judge in Texas ruled that Biden's debt relief is illegal in response to a lawsuit filed by two student-loan borrowers who didn't qualify for the full amount of loan forgiveness. On Monday, the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the temporary stay it placed on the relief will remain in effect until the court makes a final decision on its legality.

The Education Department has appealed the rulings. While Biden's administration has expressed confidence that it will prevail in court, Lopes said he's upset these lawsuits even happened in the first place.

"I definitely think it affects the mental health," Lopes said. "It's more of the unknown, the uncertainty, it just feels like a really sick game. Are we going to get a pause? Are our payments coming back? It's just all unnerving."


With the court decisions blocking the relief indefinitely, the department is no longer accepting new applications, and it indicated in a recent court filing that it's "examining" another extension of the student-loan-payment pause.

The financial uncertainty these lawsuits have brought, along with a potential extension of the payment pause, has kept Lopes from planning his wedding or purchasing "anything of significant value." He emphasized that he's not asking for a handout, but he feels like many Americans have a sense of "entitlement, that I went through it, so you have to go through it."

"It just seems kind of off to me," Lopes said. "It brings up a lot of anxiety."

'I have faith because the alternative is anxiety'

Lopes said he was fortunate to have his employer pay for his graduate-school degree, but during that time, he deferred paying off his undergraduate loans and interest accumulated, causing his balance to surge. He said he wished the terms of taking on student debt were made clearer to him at the outset, especially because interest has kept many other borrowers from even making a dent in the original balance they borrowed.

With the lack of clarity surrounding student-loan forgiveness, Lopes said he has "no choice" but to remain hopeful that the Biden administration will follow through, adding, "I have faith because the alternative is anxiety."


Meanwhile, many advocates and Democratic lawmakers have ideas about what Biden should do to relieve the stress millions of borrowers are feeling right now. Multiple advocacy groups have called for an extension of the student-loan-payment pause, with Wisdom Cole, the NAACP's youth and college director, saying in a Wednesday statement that the organization "fully supports extending the repayment pause until borrowers obtain the relief they deserve and have been promised."

"It is infuriating that the very people who have benefited hundreds of thousands and even millions of dollars in bailouts are now attacking relief for Americans with Pell Grants, 51% of which go to students whose families earn less than $20,000 a year," he said. "It's hypocritical, sickening, and speaks volumes about the types of politicians who must be unseated. But they won't win this fight."