some common questions about how it will work:

That could make a real difference to those who fell into debt trying to achieve their version of the American dream, said Yolanda Watson Spiva, the president of Complete College America, an advocacy organization.

“Hopefully it’s the first step and not the final step,” Dr. Watson Spiva said, adding that loan forgiveness did little for those just starting out amid persistent inequities and rising tuition costs.

When Hannah Jacob, 23, entered the State University of New York at Fredonia in 2017, she had financial aid and a state grant but no monetary support from her family, she said. She took out around $10,000 in federal loans.

Graduate! Network, which supports people returning to school. Forgiveness could have a lasting effect for them, even across generations.

“We know that when people have college degrees, their family members are more likely to pursue an education,” she said, “and the trajectories for their lives and their employment are changed forever.”

Ms. Smith, in Detroit, has tried over and over to get an education that would put her on solid ground. She said she struggled in high school, served in the Navy, got her high school equivalency diploma, attended community college in Wayne County part time for a couple of years, tried a private college, dropped out, took some online classes at a for-profit school and then enrolled at another community college in Macomb County.

She studied business and has received two associate degrees, as well as a certificate in digital marketing, but not a bachelor’s degree. And though she qualified for Pell grants along the way, Ms. Smith accumulated about $37,000 in student loans and interest.

Working at a strip club kept Ms. Smith afloat through financial hardships. Now she hopes to transfer her community college credits to Michigan State University.

To her, the education matters more than the diploma: Ms. Smith said that the coding and business skills she was gaining would sustain her for the long term.

Even if $20,000 of her loans were forgiven — “That would be wonderful,” Ms. Smith said — she would still have five digits of debt to pay down. But she does not plan to let that stand in the way of a four-year degree. “Schooling has been really beneficial to me,” she said. “I will never complain.”

Providing additional relief to Pell grant recipients, who compose the vast majority of those who default on student loans, is a “well targeted” approach that helps the borrowers most in need of support, said Adam Looney, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and a professor of finance at the University of Utah.

But, he said, Mr. Biden’s plan would be an “inefficient” way to improve college affordability. While the proposed repayment rules may lessen the burden of debt, they do not reduce the sticker price of a college education.

Ryan Johnston, 29, of Lake Charles, La., was a stellar high school student before he entered McNeese State University in 2011 and hit a brick wall. Anxiety plagued him; he kept stopping his studies and then starting them again.

He had a Pell grant, but his student debt kept climbing as his academic performance stalled. By 2016, he had racked up more than $17,000 in loans.

“I started weighing the options and then saw the debt and then everything else,” he said. “I just ended up throwing my hands up and saying, ‘To hell with it all.’”

Mr. Johnston turned his attention to work and was spending hundreds of dollars a month on loan repayments until, a few years ago, he defaulted. His credit score slumped, he said, costing him a job he had been seeking, and he started getting daily phone calls from debt collectors.

The loan repayment moratorium of 2020 eased some of the pressure. And if Mr. Biden’s forgiveness plan comes to fruition — Mr. Johnston remains skeptical about that — it could wipe away his debt entirely.

“It gives me the feeling that I may actually be able to buy a home within a few years,” he said. “It makes me feel like my goals for repairing my credit are more attainable than they were two, three weeks ago. It makes the future seem a whole lot brighter.”

Even college, he said, could one day be back on the table.

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