After President Joe Biden said that he would not cancel student debt "for people who have gone to Harvard and Yale and Penn," students at Penn Law School are demanding that University administrators arrange a meeting between the Biden administration and students and alumni who hold federal student loan debt.
At a Feb. 16 town hall meeting, Biden said he would not support the cancellation of student loan debt for students who attend Ivy League universities, specifically naming Penn. In response, a group of Penn Law students collectively wrote an open letter to refute Biden's argument that Ivy League students are undeserving of student debt relief. Over 100 students, alumni, and allies have signed onto the open letter, demanding that Penn administrators arrange a meeting between the Biden administration and students and alumni so that they may share their experiences as student debtors.
Biden stated at the town hall that he would only consider canceling up to $10,000 in debt to support students rather than the plan to forgive up to $50,000 in debt that many expected. He added that student debt relief for graduates of elite institutions would be better spent on other priorities such as early childhood education or making community college free.
"We refuse to allow the stereotype of an Ivy League student excuse the Biden Administration from implementing debt cancellation for millions of Americans, many of whom are our own loved ones," the open letter says.
Rising third-year J.D. candidate at Penn Law Magali Duque said that the open letter emerged out of a desire to challenge the use of a monolithic view of Penn students as wealthy and undeserving of debt relief when, on the contrary, Biden's policy could have a significant impact on reducing the racial wealth gap and pursuing financial equity for many.
“[Student debt relief] would significantly relieve students of color and all low-income students from the unfair burden of being disproportionately obligated to contract for debt in order to obtain an education, pursue a career, be able to afford a decent life, and meaningfully contribute to the economy,” Duque said.
Duque said that she also signed onto the letter because she will hold close to $400,000 in student debt upon graduating from Penn in 2022 after attending a total of three universities.
2015 School of Social Practice and Policy graduate Kristen Smith, who currently works at SP2, signed the letter as a first-generation four-year college student who has accumulated $200,000 in student debt. Smith said that, as a first-generation college student, she was initially unaware of how student debt would affect her.
"There's this misconception that most people who graduate from Ivy League universities come from privileged families that have the means to help them with their debt. But it's not true," Smith said.
The open letter also emphasizes the importance of student debt relief in ensuring that all students have the opportunity to pursue public service careers.
While rising second-year J.D. candidate at Penn Law Zachary Green received a full-tuition scholarship to Penn Law and does not hold student debt, he signed the letter as an ally because he believes that his classmates should be able to navigate their post-graduate career without the burden of student debt.
"The reason I came [to Penn Law] is because I realized that it would actually allow me to do what I would like to do when I leave here," Green said. "The level of choice that is available to me is the level of choice that should be available to everybody."
Biden's statement previously sparked backlash among first-generation and low-income undergraduate students at Penn. Rising Wharton sophomore and FGLI student Faith Bochert previously told the Daily Pennsylvanian that she took Biden’s statement as a “direct insult" because she felt that Biden's comment discredited her accomplishment of gaining admission to Penn as a FGLI student.
While the group is currently awaiting more signatories and testimonies before contacting the Penn administration, they are adamant about sharing with University administrators their stories, views, and findings as students who hold federal loan debt, organizers said.
"As law students who have experienced and understand the economic repercussions that debt has, and has had on our lives and our communities, we felt called to act given our unique and privileged position as Penn students," Duque said.