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Remarks by the Vice President in a Roundtable Discussion on Student Debt Relief in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

April 08, 2024

THE VICE PRESIDENT: Let me start by thanking the leaders of William Cramp Elementary School. I was just saying to the leaders at this table that it's such a joy to walk around a school where there is clearly so much love and dedication that the school workers, the administrators, the teachers, the folks who work here, are giving to the children of our country.

So, I want to thank everybody and, in their absence, all of the teachers and the -- those workers at this school for what you do every day for the children of America.

Representative Dwight Evans, it is wonderful to be with you, as always. I know you from your work in Congress, and I know you from your work here in this beautiful state. And you have been a very important advisor and friend to the President and me. So, thank you.

And, Tonya Pendleton, I want to thank you for being the moderator of this discussion.

And then, in his absence, but he sends his best, Senator Bob Casey, I want to thank him for all he does.

So, this is intended to be a discussion about student loan debt. But really, it is, from my perspective, a discussion about who are our public servants and what we, as a society and as a country, owe them for the gift that they possess and then give to so many people, often without the praise on a daily basis that they deserve. But their value to the strength of our country, their value to our well-being is immeasurable.

And who are our public servants? They are teachers. They are nurses. They're firefighters. They are police officers. They are librarians. They are bus drivers and social workers. They are people who have dedicated themselves to serving the public, often serving on behalf of people that they otherwise have never met and would otherwise have no obligation to, other than the fact that they care and they understand the strength and the importance of lifting up other people and, by extension, all of us.

And our public servants, then, do some of the most noble and selfless work that anyone can do. I think about our teachers -- our teachers who have the -- the calling to teach other people's children and to do that work often without the resources they need. Most of the teachers -- public school teachers I have met over the years come out of their own pocket to help pay for school supplies. We don't teach -- we don't pay our teachers nearly what they deserve in terms of the value that they give to society as a whole.

And I will say that also as a proud public school -- former public-school student. My first grade teacher, Mrs. Francis Wilson -- God rest her soul -- attended my law school graduation. I wouldn't be here except for the strength of our teachers and, of course, the family in which I was raised.

School nurses. Nurse's office -- many of us had the good fortune of being -- attending schools where there was a school nurse. But sadly, we have not -- we have not supported our nurses enough so that we can have enough of them in the pipeline to serve all of the schools that need a school nurse.

But our school nurses are -- they are leaders. They are known by the students. They are known as the people who care for the students. They often -- they're -- the nurse's office is an oasis of comfort and sanctity for so many students.

Our social workers, who help children in foster care -- children who have, through no fault of their own, been in circumstances where they need the support and they need the encouragement of a social worker to help them know that they are special and important.

This is who our public servants are. And yet many are silently struggling with student loan debt.

God knows we don't pay them enough in the first place. But so many of them, nonetheless, will choose to stay in these important roles because it is a calling for them, whereas they could potentially opt into a different profession with their skills that would pay them more. But they stay where they are because they care.

And we as a society and a country should reciprocate that care by alleviating the burden that so many of them are carrying with this enormous debt that prevents them from being able to get through the month stress-free, prevents them, in many cases, from being able to -- to buy a home or even start a family.

And so, the work that President Biden and I have been doing throughout the last three years has been to address one of the big issues facing not only our public servants but many people who carry student loan debt, which is what can we do to relieve some of the burden, because we do believe not only for public service, but most people should not have to carry this kind of worry.

And so far, then, we have forgiven, on average, $70,000 of student loan debt for over 850,000 public servants. And for folks in general, we have forgiven over $144 billion for over 4 million people.

And that means, of course, for those individuals who have received this forgiveness, that's more money in their pocket to pay for things like childcare, more money in their pocket to get through the month in terms of rent or a mortgage.

And so, today, then, building on the work that we've done thus far, I'm announcing a new plan to forgive more loans for 25 million more Americans, including millions of our public servants. And that means, for example, if you've paid undergrad loans for 20-plus years or graduate loans for 25 or more years, your loans will be completely forgiven, regardless of your income and even if you did not graduate.

So, I'm going to repeat that. If you've paid undergraduate loans for more than 20 years or graduate loans for more than 25 years, those loans will be completely forgiven, regardless of your income and even if you did not graduate. And forgiveness will be automatic for the vast majority of the 25 million people that we believe will benefit from this approach.

And to see if you could be eligible, I would urge everyone to go to StudentAid.Gov. That's StudentAid.Gov.

And I'll close with this. The President and I continue to do and will do much more to build on this work, again, understanding that we want to create incentives for people to acquire the kinds of skills, like the professionals at this table, to do the work that they do that benefits so many others and benefits all of us as a nation.

And so, I thank the leaders who are at this table for being willing to tell your stories in a way that I think will inspire others to apply for the forgiveness and to do the work that we know can be done to honor our public servants and so many others.

And with that, I'm going to turn it over to Tonya Pendleton to moderate our conversation.

MS. PENDLETON: Thank you so much, Madam Vice President. And I certainly echo your -- your wonderful entry remarks to talk about how important our public servants are and the dedication and sacrifice that they bring to their roles.

I am the host of "Reality Check" on WURD Radio here in Philadelphia. And as you are announcing that there are student loan debts being canceled, we have these wonderful public servants here with us to tell their stories.

And so, I'd like to start just briefly with Congressman Evans, because I know that your district cuts a wide swath across Center City in West Philadelphia and the northwest, to talk a little bit about how this student debt has impacted your constituents.

REPRESENTATIVE EVANS: First -- first thing I'd like to say is good afternoon and thank the Vice President for coming here and talking about this initiative in this city. This city is extremely significant. So, you will always be welcome here.

So, I'll make that very clear that you -- for the service that you have provided, along with the President, has been extremely important. You have shown the type of leadership that we need today.

And you do not -- you nor the President do not let the Supreme Court get in the way when you think there needs to be something done right for workers and middle-class people.

So, I want to add my voice and my support, as a member of Congress, that I'm very supportive of that -- this. Because, obviously, the implications that you just talked about and what it means and the effect -- it has an effect upon our economy: individuals buying houses, access to communities. So, this is a very significant discussion.

And I think hel- -- holding it here, as we have the superintendent here, at this great elementary school is a real plus.

So, this is the kind of leadership that I think is especially -- and you, Madam Vice President, have demonstrated that. So, I really just want to add that.

MS. PENDLETON: Well, as you said -- and thank you very much for your remarks, Congressman Evans. We are here at Cramp Elementary School, and so, I think w- -- we will just do a round robin and start out with Tonya Cabeza, who is the school-based teacher leader here at the William Cramp Elementary School. And you're going to talk to us a little bit about your personal story and how your education path and also how student loan debt relief has helped you.

Thank you.

MS. CABEZA: Thank you for this opportunity, Madam Vice President. And I'd like to start by telling my story about a time not too long ago -- just last May. I was doing what moms do in the kitchen with my three children: making dinner, checking emails. And I open up an email that said, "Congratulations, your loans have been forgiven."

To say I was stunned -- a total understatement. It was 40,000-plus dollars in student loans just gone -- zero. I wish you could have seen it. There was dancing. (Laughter.) There were tears on my part. Just -- we knew that things were changing for us. My -- my life had changed, and what I was able to give to my children had changed.

I am the first in my family to go to college. I didn't know that that was going to be an option for me. But I knew, to pursue the career that I've always wanted since I was little -- there wasn't a time that I didn't want to be a teacher -- that I needed to go to college and graduate in order to do this, you know, job that I love.

So, with -- I was 22 years old -- graduated from college. I had to take out a loan for my entire amount of my undergrad. And then to continue teaching and get that permanent certification, I had to do more schooling, in which I had to take out more loans. So, I had my debt from my undergrad and then had to take out more loans to do my graduate studies in a reading certification program.

But, despite that, I did press on. I did get that level 2 certification. And I -- I get to come here every day and work with these students, and this is my work home. I love working here, and the loans gave me the opportunity to do that.

But now that they're forgiven, my eldest daughter is now in college -- also going into the education path -- and I'm able to help her in a way that my parents weren't able to assist me. Even though they wanted to, they just weren't in the position to do that. And I'm able to help her in her -- her college path into education as well.

MS. PENDLETON: In terms of the debt being -- in terms of the debt relief, what did it feel like? When you -- you talked about dancing in the kitchen, but what did it feel like for you to know that, at this point going forward, you would be able to live your life without this weight upon you?

MS. CABEZA: I mean, I had been at that point paying loans for 20 years already, and I just really thought that that was something that I would be paying until I died.

And then, you know, my -- with my daughter going to college, too -- I mean, she's taking out loans. But just being able to help her and -- and -- you know, go to college and to give her what she needs to -- to follow this path, I mean, it was -- she was in her first year of college at that point. So, it just was an amazing feeling to be able to help her.

MS. PENDLETON: I dare say a life-changing feeling. (Laughs.)

MS. CABEZA: Absolutely a life-changing feeling. Again, I just thought I'd have those loans forever.

MS. PENDLETON: Well, thank you so much. Thank you so much for sharing that with us.

And then Beth Whelan, who is right here next to me, she is a school nurse. She is at Richmond Elementary School, and we'd love to hear your story.

MS. WHELAN: Yes, thank you, Madam Vice President.

Oh, can you hear me?


MS. WHELAN: All right. So, I'm a school nurse at Richmond Elementary School in the Port Richmond section of the city. I've been at Richmond since 2013 and with the district since 2007. It's an underserved community that I work in. They have various needs that really change day to day. 30 percent of our student population is asthmatic, so it's really important that I'm there every day and that I'm prepared.

I was hired under an emergency school nurse certification, so I needed to pursue further coursework in order to be able to continue to practice. When I went to p- -- pursue my master's degree, I chose public health nursing because I thought it would be the most beneficial for the children and the families that I serve.

Unfortunately, I accrued a lot of student -- student loan debt at this time, coupled with my undergrad debt that I still had, I was paying hundreds of dollars a month, barely making ends meet. At that time, at the district, we hadn't had a raise in a few years -- cost-of-living raise. And I was a single parent.

I knew I could make more money if I returned to hospital nursing, but I really believed in the importance of school nursing, so I stuck with it. I took on a second job with a nursing agency. I picked up weekend and evening shifts when I could. And I -- I honestly thought I'd be paying my loans forever.

I was very exhausted and stressed. So, when I learned of the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program, I was very relieved, and I applied for it.

Recently, I lost my father. I remember a conversation that I had with him shortly before he died. He asked me if I was okay financially, as he would help me from time to time. I had just gotten word that all of my $65,000 of student loan debt had been forgiven. And I told him that. I saw a lot of relief in his face, as I was not going to have that burden on me anymore.

Since then, I've moved in with my mom to help take care of her and the house. For the first time in years, I won't have to work this summer. I can be home with her to support her and help my kids as well in school.

I'm so grateful to this program, which has allowed me to continue to work for the school district and have some balance in my life.

MS. PENDLETON: You know, the thing that stands out is that -- for the both of you, that you were getting education in order to further yourself in order to be more of a help to the people that you are serving, to be part of the Philadelphia public school system, and to be able to advance yourself, but also advance the young people that you work with, yet having to make the sacrifices -- working as a school nurse and then taking on extra shifts -- and continuing just to pay the debt.

So, the -- the weight that comes off for you, that is something that's translated to the people that you are servicing.

MS. WHELAN: Yes, yes. Yeah, it was just a huge relief, is all I can describe it as. It was just -- it was a burden that I thought that I would just carry with me for forever. It seemed like I would never pay it off.

THE VICE PRESIDENT: Well, and also the -- it -- it is a very difficult thing to lose a parent or anyone that you love. But what a parent will worry most about --


THE VICE PRESIDENT: -- is if their children will be okay so that they can go in peace.

MS. WHELAN: Yes, and I feel like I was able --


MS. WHELAN: -- to give him some of that.

THE VICE PRESIDENT: And you also had that experience.


THE VICE PRESIDENT: And just as a person who experiences that kind of thing, in addition to what you do as a professional, I'm sure that that was an added weight that was lifted from you, to let your father know --


THE VICE PRESIDENT: -- that you were going to be okay. Yeah.

MS. WHELAN: Yes. Yeah.


MS. PENDLETON: And then to also be able to have that time and space to be able to take care of your mother, who I understand --


MS. PENDLETON: -- is ill and then losing your father as well. So, this has opened up some new possibilities for you.

MS. WHELAN: Yes, because I would normally work in the summer just to have some extra money. And now I'm able to --

THE VICE PRESIDENT: To take care of your mom. Yeah.

MS. WHELAN: -- stay home with her.

MS. PENDLETON: Yeah. Yeah, that's wonderful.

Kelli Gray, you are the social work services manager at the Philadelphia Department of Human Services. And you work with people who are endangered, who are abused --

MS. GRAY: Yes.

MS. PENDLETON: -- who are dealing with all kinds of dysfunction in their life.

MS. GRAY: Yes.

MS. PENDLETON: And yet, you have gone through the system -- the school system, your daughters as well -- everyone getting an education -- in order to, once again, further your careers as public servants and work with the people that you work with.

Tell us your story.

MS. GRAY: Thank you again, Madam President.


MS. GRAY: Hello, my name is Kelli Monique Gray. I'm a proud public service worker for the Philadelphia Department of Human Services, also known as DHS, looking out for the welfare of children and a proud AFSCME member. That's the union that I'm in.

My student debt story is like everybody else's. I knew I wanted to better li- -- I knew I wanted a better life for myself and my two wonderful twin daughters, one of whom, Monique, is here with me today. And I knew education was that path. So, I took a risk and took out debt. I got associate's, a bachelor's, a master's, and I wanted a PhD. But, ultimately, I had to stop taking my PhD classes because I couldn't afford any more debt.

Unfortunately -- I just said that -- after I got my first degree, I navigated into public service. First, elementary as a -- first, elementary education teacher, helping children. Now I'm helping children in the social work field directly with DHS. I've also been at DHS for 13 years, and I have been a social worker for 20 years.

Giving direct care to children is beyond important to me. As a survivor of childhood sexual abuse, I know that children need an advocate and someone who sees them, and I can recognize what they're going through when they don't have a voice. That's a big part of why I chose public service. And I'm proud to say that both my daughters have followed in my footsteps also.

My education has been enabled me to publish two books. One intends to help survivors. When you have a path, you have a voice. So, my path gave me a path to the future.

My other book is encouraging everyone to get out into the world and see it: "Pack Your Bags! We Are Going to Guinea, Africa: Exploring the World, One Country at a Time."

I'm proud of both of my daughters. The process wasn't easy at all. After graduating, my -- and I had a parent PLUS loan. My daughter graduated from Spelman. She wanted to go to Spelman. She applied to 13 schools. She got all -- accepted to all 13. But Spelman was her last choi- -- I mean, Spelman was her fir- -- Spelman was her first choice but her last acceptance, so she was going to ace- -- settle at Xavier.

We got the letter stating that she got accepted to Spelman. I knew I had to ask help for a parent PLUS loan, and I knew I needed a cosigner because my loans were outrageous and my credit wasn't good. So, we did get that.

The loans, which is too high for me -- my loans were $350,000.


MS. GRAY: On February the 23th of this year, I took my work -- my papers, because I ta- -- take it to work to shred. I opened up my letter. I was going to shred it. You know, I'm not even paying attention. I opened it up. It was from MOHELA. And it said, "Congratulations. Thank you for being in public service. Your loans have been forgiven."

I didn't believe it. I went on the FAFSA website. It was all zeros, including my parent PLUS loan. I called my daughter because she was so, so overwhelmed of not helping me, because she's, you know, trying to do her own path.

And it's been off of my credit report for two weeks. So, I just want everybody to know there is help out there. Whatever relief program it is, apply. Just like me, I never thought that I would ever, ever get any of this done.

Two years ago, I tr- -- I kept trying to buy a house, but my credit was so bad, I couldn't do it. So, my loans were transferring from one loaner to MOHELA. So, I knew there was a time period where -- you know, I wasn't being sneaky or anything, but it wasn't going to show up on my credit report.

You know what, it's the time to go to buy the house. It's going to take at least six months, go -- or 60 days, whatever; go ahead and do it. To my surprise, I got approved for the loan to buy a house. And then, you know, of course, my loans came back. But on February the 23rd, it brought -- it was just so much joy.

I can travel. I couldn't save any money. I couldn't afford $800 a month.

I just want to thank you guys so much for looking out for my family. We just -- we appreciate you guys, because if it wasn't for you guys, I'd still been renting, I'll still be trying to figure out how I'm going to do $800. And I did forbearance, for- -- deferment. I did everything under the sun so it can just -- and the interest rate was astronomical.

But thank you so much. I don't mean to cry, but -- (laughter).


REPRESENTATIVE EVANS: Madam Vice President, let her tell you about the book that you --

MS. GRAY: So, Madam Vice President, I have a small business. I was in ShopRite -- Brown's ShopRite. He owns maybe, like, seven ShopRites in the city of Philadelphia and some outside the city and in New Jersey. I read -- met -- at that time, he wasn't the congressman. I seen him -- I have a picture of him. I showed him -- he came up to my table, he brought my book.

And I said, "Oh, okay." When I seen that he was going to be here, I said, "Well, let me show him the picture." I said, "Look, where's the book?" He don't know. He never read the book. (Laughter.)

But we have a picture, and I just -- you know, people, they go through a lot, but took the time to talk to me, took a picture with me, and buy the book. It was just so amazing.

THE VICE PRESIDENT: Well, let me just say that I -- I cannot thank each of you enough for the life that you have decided to live. And -- and you have answered a calling -- each one of you has answered a calling to serve in an extraordinary way.

When I think about the story that each of you have shared -- and it's important that -- that people understand this, that when we're looking at something like forgiving student loan debt for public servants, this is who we're talking about. We're talking about teachers who -- Tonya described her workplace as her home, because that's the kind of person that you are and that our teachers are, that you give of yourself as though the children that you are teaching are your own children.

MS. CABEZA: Yeah, (inaudible).

THE VICE PRESIDENT: Right. And she said they are.

Beth, you know, what you have done and to continue to -- to go to school, deciding and making a conscious decision you wanted to be a public health nurse. There are many places you could have gone, and we know we have a shortage, sadly, of nurses in our country. And -- and you could have been paid much more. But you wanted to be a public health nurse and serve in our public schools and -- and take care of our children -- the children of the community with the debt you were carrying.

I mean, Kelli, the story of somebody who is caring for -- you know, we talk about the least of these -- the children who have been abused and neglected. And this is what you have decided to do with your life for 20 years, carrying over $300,000 of debt.

What Kelli did not share -- because I had the honor of meeting her daughter -- is Kelli's daughter graduated Spelman College as class president.

MS. GRAY: Yes.

MS. PENDLETON: Wow. Congratulations.

THE VICE PRESIDENT: And -- but -- (applause) -- but was carrying this debt. And so, it's important in this conversation that folks understand, when President Joe Biden and I and our administration decided to do this, it really was, yes, about the individuals who are here, but I have to keep emphasizing: Everyone is benefiting because of the work that you each do, and we want you to stay in these jobs doing this work. We need you to stay in these jobs doing this work.

And you shouldn't have to make a decision about whether you serve or be able to pay your bills. And that's part of the spirit behind the work that we are doing. It's because we know who you are, and we applaud you. We thank you in every way possible.

MS. PENDLETON: And, you know, if I can add, I think the critical thing is, when we talk about student debt, we're talking about student loan relief. And this is what you've heard today. You've heard the relief --

THE VICE PRESIDENT: Yeah, that's right.

MS. PENDLETON: -- in everyone's voice talking about how they felt so challenged by these enormous -- this enormous debt, and that having it relieved has enabled them to be able to continue to do the service that they --


MS. PENDLETON: -- want to do and that they were called to do and that they have gotten their educations to do. I mean, the palpable relief.


MS. PENDLETON: So, it is not just student loan cancellation. This is about student loan relief and relieving this burden of debt for people who are dedicated public servants or people who have been paying for over 20 years or people who have interest rates that have accrued to the point that it has outmatched whatever they originally borrowed.

THE VICE PRESIDENT: Right. That's right.

MS. PENDLETON: So, we certainly -- and, you know, full disclosure: I am one of those people. (Laughs.) I had a six-figure student do- -- student loan debt that was relieved last year. And I -- like you, I opened an email, and I was astounded because it -- as you said, Kelli, it makes a difference.

When you have a high debt-to-income ratio, we know that affects your credit, that affects your ability to buy a home, buy a car, rent an apartment, all of those things.

And I think that is what I'm left with, certainly, that it's -- it's relief. It is debt relief.

And thank you so much, Vice President Harris, and -- and for everything that you've done to bring this forward and make it happen, because it's so significant. You can't move forward when you're saddled with debt.

I had debt -- I went to school when I was 17 years old. And so, from 17 years old to now, many moons later. And then I also went to school twice. I went -- I finished my bachelor's.

So, I can't -- I can't thank you enough. And I'm sure that everyone here on this panel shares that exact same feeling. So, thank you.

And thank you for being here with us today in Philadelphia.


MS. PENDLETON: Your 12th trip to Pennsylvania.

THE VICE PRESIDENT: It is. (Laughs.)

CONGRESSMAN EVANS: This is why when we -- when I say that leadership is very important, we need to never take that for granted. And let that (inaudible). The Vice President and the President, that combination is what provides benefits for all of us, not just in Philadelphia, but the nation.

So, I share with you, as persons that are (inaudible), that we need to encourage them in their leadership and be supportive.

So, I want to just add my thoughts on that.

THE VICE PRESIDENT: Thank you, Congressman.

Well, I -- again, I want to thank everybody. And please just keep doing what you are doing. Please keep doing what you're doing. And just know that your country needs you and that we are benefiting in profound ways because of the sacrifice and the work that you all do every day. It really is the most noble work anybody can do.

And thank you. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. (Applause.)

Kamala Harris, Remarks by the Vice President in a Roundtable Discussion on Student Debt Relief in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/371108

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