Western Michigan students and small business owners react to Kamala Harris' student loan forgiveness proposal

Senator Kamala Harris

California Sen. and candidate for president Kamala Harris announced her plan to address the student loan debt crisis on Sunday. Other Democratic candidates like Sen. Bernie Sanders and Sen. Elizabeth Warren have already been campaigning on the promise of student loan debt forgiveness, if elected president, Harris' plan focuses on black entrepreneurs. 

Backlash followed her announcement as many were quick to point out the nearly 8 million Pell Grant recipients are not borrowing money in the same way as a federal student loan.

Harris acknowledged the confusion via Twitter the following day, clarifying the forgiveness program is just one of many, including directing federal research and grantmaking agencies to drive more opportunities to HBCUs. 

"I want to thank everyone for your feedback and clarify some confusion. We have an opportunity gap in our country, and one thing we need to do is support Black entrepreneurs. I have a plan to do that on multiple fronts," Harris said on Twitter. 

For comparison, Sen. Warren recently unveiled her legislation to forgive up to $50,000 in student debt for households earning less than $250,000, and Senator Sanders is running on his long-time proposal to completely wipe out $1.6 trillion in undergraduate and graduate student loan debt for nearly 50 million people. While those to the right — including Democratic candidate John Delaney — call student loan forgiveness "impossible promises," those on the same side of the isle are skeptical whether the specific conditions attached to Harris' proposal would reach enough people to adequately impact the communities it's designed to benefit. 

Western Michigan graduate and founder of online makeup company, Urban Shine, Alexandria Richardson says while Sen. Harris' proposal could be helpful to some, she fears that only offering the program for Pell Grant recipients may not be the best demographic to target. 

"As a Pell Grant recipient I received up to $5,900 per year. It's definitely not enough to cover everything but I didn't graduate overwhelmed in student loans because of it," Richardson said. 

"I don't have a high monthly payment and by the time I'm in the third year of my business, I'll have most of my loans paid off already because of receiving the Pell Grant," the Chicago native said. "Having to qualify for all of those things is definitely strict and honestly, I don't know anyone who meets all of them."

Jerjuan Howard, senior criminal justice major and incoming president of Western Michigan's Black Student Union wouldn't meet Sen. Harris' criteria either. The founder of Supreme Clean Team — a junk and debris removal business operated out of Detroit — Howard echoed Richardson's concerns that the specific conditions of Harris' plan might not be a large enough group to make a dent in the rising rates of student debt. 

According to the Durham, N.C. based non-profit, Center for Responsible Lending, black students earn their bachelors degree carrying student debt 16% more often than their white classmates. White students receiving their bachelors degrees carry student debt upon graduation 69% of the time, whereas 85% of black students leave their undergraduate program with accumulated debt.

As member of the Army National Guard, Howard won't be concerned with paying back student loans after he graduates. Operating his business from Detroit's west side since last May, Howard says the one of the biggest issues with Harris' qualifications for loan forgiveness of small business owners is that their businesses must be in operation for three years. 

"Businesses operating in disadvantaged areas usually don't last for three years," Howard said. "Imagine the amount of people who would want take the risk of starting a business if it meant their students loans were going to be cancelled. You'd have a generation of entrepreneurs."

Harris, who has since released detailed plans on her website to "reduce opportunity gaps," by working with Congress to create a $12 billion capital grant to help minority small business owners, will take the debate stage Wednesday night at Fox Theatre in Detroit.

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