Chinedum Nnodum of Bridgeport, CT is one of 321,000 Connecticut residents impacted by the Supreme Court's decision on student loan relief. Shahrzad Rasekh / CTMIRROR.ORG Shahrzad Rasekh / CT Mirror

Chinedum Nnodum turned down a full-ride scholarship to UConn and opted to enroll at Cornell University when he graduated high school years ago — a decision he now has come to regret.

The second of seven children to Nigerian immigrant parents, he was always told that education determines the trajectory of one’s life and to pursue the best school he could, despite the cost. However, at 18, he had to move back to Connecticut and enroll at Sacred Heart University part-time to help take care of his family, both financially and physically, after his father fell ill and eventually passed away.

Now 35 years old, and having added a masters degree from the University of Bridgeport to his resume, Nnodum has $104,859 in student loan debt and had been hoping for some relief.

His situation isn’t unique.

Nnodum is one of the 321,000 Connecticut residents who applied for President Joe Biden’s student loan relief program last year that would have allowed borrowers under certain income thresholds to qualify for up to $20,000 of federal student loan debt forgiveness. Of that number, over 208,000 were fully approved for the debt to be discharged, and more might have been approved if lawsuits filed against Biden’s order did not stop the U.S. Department of Education from accepting applications. Last year, the administration initially estimated that more than 454,000 borrowers in Connecticut could qualify for the program.

But Nnodum, alongside millions of Americans across the country, will not see loan forgiveness after the Supreme Court ruled against the administration on Friday. The decision is a double blow for borrowers as payments on student loans are also expected to restart by the end of August.

“I just wish we can get to a point where as a nation, we are thinking substantially about what our future looks like in the era in which we are sitting,” Nnodum said. “When you know the wealth is here, why are we still charging our future for them to improve themselves — when the whole point is that when these students come out, they will be contributing to the society and making it greater? When will we stop holding our future hostage just for the sake of profit?”

Argued in late February before the Supreme Court, two cases challenged the Biden administration’s plan that would allow an individual who earned less than $125,000 a year or couples who earned under $250,000 to receive $10,000 in loan forgiveness. Pell Grant recipients, who are mostly from families who earn less than $60,000 a year and require greater financial assistance to attend school, were eligible for an additional $10,000 in loan forgiveness.

The program was announced in August 2022, fulfilling one of Biden’s campaign promises and offering a scaled-back version of a progressive priority. The application period was open for about a month before a federal appeals court halted the program last fall.

Biden sought to unilaterally implement broad-based student loan forgiveness to circumvent a Congress that was unable to move such legislation forward. The ruling is a blow to that authority. And with a divided government and narrow majorities, Congress remains highly unlikely to pass any bills related to student loans. On top of that, Congress passed a provision when it raised the debt limit earlier this month to prevent Biden from pausing student loan repayments outside of another emergency.

The Supreme Court’s decision was partly based on whether the parties that sued had standing to do so. Six states had claimed in their lawsuit that the government was overstepping its authority under the law and two individuals — one who would not qualify and another who would not get the full $20,000 benefit — argued in their own lawsuit that they were entitled to the opportunity for public comment on the debt relief. Once the court determined whether the parties had the right to sue, it could determine whether the government exceeded its authority.

In the Supreme Court’s decision Friday, the justices ruled 6-3 in the case brought by the states challenging Biden’s student loan forgiveness plan. But the nine justices unanimously ruled in the other case from two individual borrowers that they did not have standing to sue, ultimately dismissing it.

Biden’s administration said it had the authority to broadly cancel debt through a law called the HEROES Act of 2003. It argued that U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona could alter student loans during national emergencies like the pandemic.

In this case, the six justices found that the states had standing to sue specifically because of the Missouri Higher Education Loan Authority, referred to as MOHELA. It is a major student loan servicer that handles both private and federal loans and provides some revenue for the state.

“The Secretary asserts that the HEROES Act grants him the authority to cancel $430 billion of student loan principal. It does not. We hold today that the Act allows the Secretary to ‘waive or modify’ existing statutory or regulatory provisions applicable to financial assistance programs under the Education Act, not to rewrite that statute from the ground up,” Chief Justice John Roberts wrote on behalf of the majority.

Justices Elena Kagan, Sonia Sotomayor and Ketanji Brown Jackson dissented in the case regarding the states. In the opinion authored by Kagan, she argued that the states also had no standing to sue and the court should not have waded into the merits of the case because of that.

“The plaintiffs in this case are six States that have no personal stake in the Secretary’s loan forgiveness plan. They are classic ideological plaintiffs: They think the plan [is] a very bad idea, but they are no worse off because the Secretary differs,” Kagan wrote.

“In giving those States a forum – in adjudicating their complaint – the Court forgets its proper role,” she continued. “The Court acts as though it is an arbiter of political and policy disputes, rather than of cases and controversies.”

Overall, 15% of Connecticut residents have student loan debt, according to a 2022 report from the Office of Fiscal Analysis and Office of Legislative Research. There are 540,900 borrowers that average around $35,681 in student loan debt each — totaling around $19.3 billion statewide.

Connecticut ranks fifth highest in the country for the largest debt for the undergraduate class of 2020, which averages around $35,853.

“I think that households, by and large, have bounced back pretty good and the economy has grown stronger, incomes have gone up and people have gone back to work. I think in your typical household, things weren’t as dire as they were in 2020 when the pandemic was in the thick of things,” said Jim Thorson, an economics professor at Southern Connecticut State University. “For most people, I would argue that they will probably get by perfectly fine [without student loan forgiveness].”

Sen. Rob Sampson, R-Wolcott, said the entire student loan system needs an overhaul and the government shouldn’t have made the decision to try to “transfer the liability to to taxpayers that did not sign the loan agreement.

“College tuition, including our own state institutions, has skyrocketed because of policies that enable government-sponsored loans to be indiscriminately issued to young people,” Sampson said. “These students take on loans with no idea of if they will see a positive return on their investment. For better or worse, they assume this debt liability. When loans are issued in this manner, without discretion, colleges get away with charging increased fees and ultimately hire more faculty and administration. What we have here is an artificial demand based on the government’s uncontrolled lending.”

He said the free market system “is the answer.”

“The way to solve this problem is by making education of all types more accessible through the private marketplace,” he said. “A competitive marketplace will compel young people to determine what cost is reasonable for them to bear. They can make their decisions accordingly. This decision-making is commonly made when buying a home, purchasing a vehicle, or making an everyday purchase. As such, institutions of higher education will be forced to adapt and provide the highest quality services at the lowest price.”

Other Republicans have pushed back against Biden’s assertions he had the authority to provide debt relief on his own. The Connecticut Republican Party highlighted a past video of former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., saying she did not believe he had the power to forgive debt other than postponing or delaying loan repayments.

But Democrats across the state believe the president could tackle student loan forgiveness and worry about the fallout from the court’s decision.

Connecticut Attorney General William Tong denounced the ruling on Friday. He had joined two dozen other Democratic attorneys general in support of the administration’s policy by submitting a brief to the court. In it, they argued that not following through on student loan forgiveness would cause more students to default on their debt and could play a negative role in other areas of their lives, like for housing.

“This decision will cause far-reaching economic harm nationwide as millions of borrowers divert their paychecks and savings to loan payments that should have been forgiven,” Tong said in a statement. “The states that torpedoed this relief are going to have to answer to all the families across the country who are thousands of dollars poorer today thanks to their partisan grandstanding.”

Connecticut Democrats serving in Washington hope Congress will take up the issue, though they do not currently have the votes.

“I am deeply disappointed in today’s decision from the Court and will continue to work with my colleagues in Congress and the President to not only forgive a portion of student debt, but to ensure every American can access the education they need without taking on mountains of loans,” U.S. Rep. John Larson, D-Conn., said. “We will continue to pursue a common-sense approach of service to your country for loan forgiveness. For every year you serve your country, we can offer two years of in-state tuition or loan forgiveness by passing my ACTION for National Service Act.”

Although Thorson said on average there’s only a 7% default rate on student loans and most people can pay back the debt, he added that for other borrowers, who may have not completed college or struggle with debt that’s higher than the average amount, they may remain stuck without any relief.

“Around $35,000, most people in that range are gonna have their student loans paid off maybe within five to 10 years or so, depending on how aggressively they pursue it. … Where it gets ugly is when somebody has that in the hundreds of thousands of dollars [and] really get significantly burdened with long periods of payment,” Thorson said. 

Nnodum for example, despite reaching a comfortable income, said he still works side gigs. For a while it was ride-sharing like Uber, but now it’s food delivery and online surveys. 

“After a decade of work, I finally hit six figures, and I’m laughing because I was looking at the rent increases. I was living in a very terrible neighborhood — when I say terrible neighborhood, I mean, in the span of two years, I had four of my neighbors overdose and die. [My] new job allowed me to exit that neighborhood,” Nnodum said. “I finally moved, but [now] my rent is double. So even though I got the new salary, I was laughing because the increased utilities themselves like increased gas, electric, cable — all these increased bills — nothing [about my financial situation] changed.”

And with student loan payments expected to restart in a few months, Nnodum still doesn’t know if his income will be enough to balance his existing expenses and the loans.

“[Many] borrowers really cannot afford payments beginning without the promised relief with inflation, the effects of COVID and the pandemic – there’s millions of borrowers who will immediately default. I honestly don’t know if I would even be able to swing it,” Nnodum said.

Despite the Supreme Court’s decision, some Connecticut residents may see some relief through various efforts for local student loan relief enacted this legislative session.

The state budget set aside $12 million over two years to establish a pilot program to reimburse qualifying residents up to $20,000 for student loan payments, where recipients must: be current residents of Connecticut who have lived in-state for at least five years: have attended a vocational school or college in Connecticut; and have an annual income under $125,000 for an individual and $175,000 for a couple.

The program will make payments to recipients of up to $5,000 a year for up to four years. Recipients will have to complete 50 hours of community service and submit proof of eligibility for each year they participate. Payments will be provided on a first-come, first-serve basis.

The budget implementer also included provisions that would create a student loan ombudsman’s office and expand a state registry for student loan servicers to include subservices of these loans. 

Proponents said the additional oversight in the registry would give borrowers more information when weighing loan options and provide for data collection that could inform future legislation. The ombudsman would be tasked with offering education and information to help borrowers understand their rights and responsibilities. The office would also work to analyze and resolve complaints from student borrowers.

And in 2019, Gov. Ned Lamont signed a measure establishing a tax credit for employers in Connecticut who assist with the payment of their employees’ student loans. That tax credit was expanded last year.

“Although the U.S. Supreme Court has blocked federal assistance, Connecticut offers a generous tax credit to employers that provide student loan assistance and a debt-free community college program that more than 10,000 students have already taken advantage of,” Lamont said in a statement. “We also have targeted relief programs for teachers, nurses, and social workers. I encourage all employers to step up to the plate and take advantage of state incentives to help pay down their employees’ student loans.” 

CT Mirror reporter Erica Phillips contributed to this report.

Jessika Harkay is CT Mirror’s Education Reporter, covering the K-12 achievement gap, education funding, curriculum, mental health, school safety, inequity and other education topics. Jessika's experience includes roles as a breaking news reporter at the Fort Worth Star-Telegram and the Hartford Courant. She has a Bachelor’s degree in Journalism from Baylor University.

Lisa Hagen is CT Mirror and CT Public's shared Federal Policy Reporter. Based in Washington, D.C., she focuses on the impact of federal policy in Connecticut and covers the state’s congressional delegation. Lisa previously covered national politics and campaigns for U.S. News & World Report, The Hill and National Journal’s Hotline. She is a New Jersey native and graduate of Boston University.