The People is our section for all opinions concerning Black Chicago. In this opinion piece, Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle calls on federal leaders to make good on promises for student loan forgiveness. Submit your opinion to

When Ana Milian stepped out on stage at her graduation from Loyola University on the North Side of Chicago, she thought of the courage and hard work it took to get there. Ana immigrated to the U.S. from Guatemala as a single mother. After nearly seven years of night classes combined with a full-time job, she had finally reached the finish line, Bachelor’s degree in hand. 

She was hopeful and her future looked bright. Yet, one thing still weighed heavily on her mind that day: a mountain of student loan debt. 

Ana’s story is all too familiar for those of us concerned with the escalating student loan debt crisis in America. More than 63 million Americans hold student loan debt, and for our Black and Latinx neighbors with debt, the burden is even greater. Direct relief and systemic reform are long overdue. Action must be taken before the problem gets worse — before the mountain, like the one Ana is facing, triggers an avalanche decades in the making.

The numbers speak for themselves. Nationally, the amount of student loan debt held by Americans has tripled since 2007, rising 116% in the last 10 years. That amount currently stands at an appalling $1.5 trillion (that’s trillion with a “t”). Here in Illinois, 61 percent of students graduate with loans at an average of nearly $30,000 per borrower. Try pulling yourself up by your bootstraps with that kind of load on your shoulders.

And while this burden impacts every corner of our country, student debt is not equitably distributed by race and ethnicity. A recent report by the Brookings Institution found that upon graduation, college graduates of color owed $7,400 more on average than their white peers. This debt disparity more than triples to $25,000 within a few years after graduation. At this intersection, Black women are hit especially hard; women hold over two-thirds of all student debt across the country.

These numbers point to a stark conclusion: the student loan debt crisis is a racial equity crisis as well.

For our neighbors like Ana, this means that the cards are stacked unfairly before setting foot in the workplace. Ana figured that she might encounter prejudiced minds as she looked for a job, but she was not expecting to get pushed down before even entering the game.

This is unacceptable.

To help ease the burden in Cook County, we have recently partnered with a B-corp called Summer to provide free advice and support to local borrowers, but more must be done. For the more than one million student loan debt holders living across Chicagoland, and the tens of millions across the nation, debt cancellation is needed now. And on top of that relief, we need bold, systemic change.

In solidarity with Ana and all those in similar circumstances, we call on our leaders serving at the federal level to make good on promises made on the campaign trail. With so many people struggling, loan forgiveness must be a national priority. 

The Student Loan Debt Relief Act, a piece of legislation recently introduced by Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and U.S. Rep. James E. Clyburn (D-S.C.), would cancel $50,000 in student loan debt for 42 million Americans and provide relief to 95% of student borrowers. This bill must be passed immediately.

The impact on our communities of color would be tremendous. Experts from Brandeis University estimate that Black and Latinx families with student loan debt would see their household wealth immediately grow by more than $15,000 and $27,000, respectively.

Yet, we know that there is no silver bullet to these intersecting crises. Debt cancellation will not solve the systemic problems that brought us here in the first place. We must also look to the long term and pursue bold, systemic solutions to make higher education affordable again. 

For better or worse, a college degree is still the best way to ensure a stable job with family-sustaining wages. Because of that reality, we need to offer accessible and affordable public higher education for anyone seeking that goal. 

Providing immediate relief and charting a sustainable path forward is our only option in this incredibly challenging moment. Doing so will not only provide more of the financial assistance that our residents desperately need right now—it will also go a long way in unlocking the dreams of our neighbors like Ana. 

Together, let’s demand bold change and bring hope for a better tomorrow.

To support student loan borrowers struggling today, Cook County has partnered with Summer to provide expert guidance and potential savings relief to residents. Thanks to a generous donation from the Joyce Foundation, borrowers in Cook County can now take advantage of Summer’s online platform to receive free personalized loan savings and forgiveness recommendations, one-on-one guidance from a team of student loan experts, and a range of resources to help residents navigate their path to becoming debt free. 

Those interested in enrollment can head to to learn more.

is the 35th president of the Cook County Board of Commissioners, an office she has held since 2010.