A significant number of Mainers with outstanding student loans could see some major relief under a proposal that newly inaugurated President Joe Biden will reportedly make to cancel thousands in federal student loan debt for each person, among other efforts.
In addition to planning an executive order to "pause" federal student loan collection through September, Biden will also potentially call on Congress to cancel $10,000 in federal loan debt for every borrower, according to some reports.
That could come as a relief for many borrowers in Maine, who carry some of the highest college loan debts in the country. Two-thirds of Maine's college graduates leave school with loan debt, with an average total close to $34,000.
Now, Biden's reported proposal could clear all the student loan debt for one-in-three Maine borrowers — a rate that's similar to the whole country's —and reduce it by at least half for another 21 percent of them, according to research from Associate Professor Nicholas Hillman and his team at the University of Wisconsin-Madison
The burden of student loan debt can be crushing for people such as Lorna Durfee, a Maine nurse who now has more than $100,000 in outstanding loans.
"It's on my mind every day, 24 hours a day, pretty much," Durfee said. "How can I get this done? I need to start working. I need to pay back what I owe."
For more than 20 years, Durfee has cared for patients as a nurse in facilities from Pennsylvania to Maine. About four years ago, she decided that she want to do more: to train to be a nurse practitioner and work with underserved populations in Midcoast Maine.
"My ideal goal was to get, perhaps, maybe down the road, working somewhere where I could be in a clinic, and help those people who don't have the money to do it — can only pay a certain fee," Durfee said. "I just saw that there was this inequality in care."
Durfee went back to school to get her master's degree, but four years later, she's still trying to complete the degree program, and her student loan bills keep piling up, she said.
Jody Harris, the associate director of the left-leaning Maine Center for Economic Policy, said that cancelling debt could be particularly important for borrowers facing financial distress, who may be at risk of defaulting on their loans. She said those borrowers tend to be students who may never have finished college, but took some classes and left school with $5,000 or $10,000 in debt.
"Proposals like this, to cancel the first $10,000 of education debt, makes a lot of sense," Harris said. "It really is going to be helping those borrowers who struggle the most."
A 2018 study from the center found that more than 60 percent of Maine borrowers have struggled to make payments — and loans had prevented a third from being able to afford basic necessities.
Lewiston teacher Kennedy Hubbard, who graduated three years ago, said she's had to constantly search for additional work in order to keep up with her loan payments. She said debt cancellation could ease some of that pressure and even help her to save up for a house.
"It would definitely give me a little bit of a boost every month, and maybe I could stop working a second job while school is in session," Hubbard said.
Some experts have argued that instead of blanket loan forgiveness, the federal government should instead expand existing income-based repayment programs.
And some lawmakers have called for even more debt relief — up to $50,000 per person. Whitney Barkley-Denney, with the Center for Responsible Lending, said that could eliminate student debt for up to 75 percent of borrowers — and make a major impact on racial wealth disparities.
"When you actually break down the numbers, you find that black borrowers and borrowers of color take on more debt in order to go to school, have a harder time paying it off, and are really struggling across the board to make those payments on their student loan debt," Barkley-Denney said. "So we see this as a civil rights issue, and really as an issue of closing the racial wealth gap."
For nurse practitioner student Lorna Durfee, $10,000 would only make a small dent in her total student debt. But she said it could make her situation feel a bit less overwhelming once she finishes school.
"I think that it would give me some hope, and that somebody is there, and I can take it and I can put it towards what I owe. I think that would be significant."