About the Author

Catherine Toth Fox

Born and raised on Oahu, Catherine Toth Fox is an editor, writer, children’s book author, blogger and former journalism instructor. She is currently the editor at large for Hawaii Magazine and lives in Honolulu with her husband, son and two dogs. You can follow her on Instagram @catherinetothfox. Opinions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat's views.

The only way I was going to college was to figure out how I was going to pay for it.

Opinion article badge

That was over 20 years ago, when tuition at the University of Hawaii Manoa wasn’t nearly as high as it is now. Luckily, I earned academic tuition waivers every semester, so I never went into debt for my undergraduate degree.

Now a mom — and one sending her son to private school — I’m already stressing out about the cost of college, which, on average, can add up to anywhere from $29,920 to attend UH Manoa in-state to $77,339 at Harvey Mudd in California, the nation’s most expensive college in 2022, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

That’s higher than the median wage for U.S. workers, which was $54,132 in 2022, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. And it will undoubtedly be much higher when my son starts applying to college 13 years from now if things stay on the same track.

Who can afford college anymore?

So when the Biden administration announced on Wednesday that the federal government would cancel up to $20,000 worth of federal student loans for millions of people, I wondered if that was enough.

It’s a start, yes. It will help millions of people, yes.

But something has to be done about college affordability and equitable access to quality education.

Under Biden’s plan, borrowers who hold loans with the Department of Education and make less than $125,000 a year are eligible for up to $20,000 in student loan forgiveness if they received Pell Grants, which are given to students from low- to middle-income families.

University of Hawaii UH Manoa Campus Isamu Noguchi sculpture located fronting the art building.
A Hawaii resident attending UH as an undergraduate and living at home would pay around $23,000. Out-of-state students living on campus pay around $52,000. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022

Individuals who make less than $125,000 a year but did not receive Pell Grants are eligible for $10,000 in loan forgiveness. The typical undergraduate student with loans now graduates with nearly $25,000 in debt, according to the DOE, so this will help.

But this is a one-time fix. The amount of outstanding debt — $1.6 trillion and rising, according to the White House — is estimated to return to the same level in just four years after the $10,000 per borrower was canceled. So what happens then? We may have a new president, new lawmakers, new agendas — but this problem will remain.

This debt forgiveness plan takes care of what has already happened — and I support that — but we need to find solutions to address the issue of college affordability now. Racking up debt in the hopes of a high-paying salary after graduation or hoping the government will wipe out that debt later is a gamble, one that I lost myself.

I got a bachelor’s degree in English — cue the English major jokes — with plans to go into teaching. Instead, I wound up at Northwestern University, taking out a $35,000 loan to pay for a master’s degree in journalism. (Now it’s over $70,000 a year.)

At the time — and still today — it was ranked as one of the top journalism schools in the country. I thought, “I’m getting a degree from Northwestern. I’ll get a job and pay back that loan, no problem.”

It took me more than a decade to pay back that loan. I lucked out with a locked-in low-interest rate, and I only paid the minimum amount every month, but it was still a painful check to write.

Some critics of Biden’s plan complain that this is unfair to all of the people — like me — who have struggled to pay off their loans without help or found other ways, like military service, to finance their education. I get it, but I don’t care.

Yes, I struggled somewhat, but I was fortunate enough to land a reporting job after graduate school back home in Hawaii. That’s a win already — and my student loan debt didn’t deter me from pursuing my career goals.

I realize we all handle debt differently, and our situations are vastly individual. However, I feel nothing but gratitude that there’s a focus now on the astronomically high cost of education — and hopeful more will be done to ensure everyone, regardless of identity, gender or economics, will have access to education, period.

We need an educated public. We need people to vote, to create, to explore. We need to create a community that cares about each other. And education can help us get there.

We just all need access to it.

Read this next:

Biden Should Expand Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument

Local reporting when you need it most

Support timely, accurate, independent journalism.

Honolulu Civil Beat is a nonprofit organization, and your donation helps us produce local reporting that serves all of Hawaii.


About the Author

Catherine Toth Fox

Born and raised on Oahu, Catherine Toth Fox is an editor, writer, children’s book author, blogger and former journalism instructor. She is currently the editor at large for Hawaii Magazine and lives in Honolulu with her husband, son and two dogs. You can follow her on Instagram @catherinetothfox. Opinions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat's views.

Latest Comments (0)

The University of Hawaii system should be free for any Hawaii qualified students!

Richard · 1 year ago

Forgiveness of $10k per borrower, no more than $20k, with 3/4 of the benefit to households earning $88k or less, student loan forgiveness has a $600 billion cost. PPP-eligible businesses got $800 billion in forgiven loans initially during pandemic, at a cost of $170k-260k per job mostly to about 80 percent of firms with 300-500 workers. Both programs involved noncollateralized loans if you don't count the human capital formation of higher education less skills depreciation from otherwise unemployed workers. One is permanent the other petered out before vaccines arrived. Both are nonrecurring, or had better be. But only 1/4 of PPP went to workers, while 70 percent of PPP went to the top quintile of households (top 20 percent). You tell me which is a better bargain. The timing of student debt relief is unfortunate for inflation, but ask the former President which had higher priority. We know Biden's priority. Either way a UH education is a bargain: cheaper than a new car, lasts longer, and helps you pay back the loan. Compare that to the loss of value on a new car the moment you drive it home. Cheaper is better, but a bargain is a bargain.

Paul_Brewbaker · 1 year ago

If you want affordable college, then you should be against free/easy loans. When the government throws money at applicants to go to college, the colleges just increase their prices because why wouldn't they? It's easy money! Student loans need to be restricted based on what we need as a society and based on how much income will be generated from a degree. Want to go to nursing school? Great - we need nurses, so give out a loan. Want to get into STEM? Great - those graduates will get high paying jobs, so give out a loan. Want to major in art history? Go pay your own way through, because the government doesn't need to subsidize your $40K student debt so you can end up working at a Starbucks. With loans tightly restricted, colleges won't be able to get away with charging exorbitant tuition fees for unprofitable and useless degrees, and prices for those will go down - as they should. Let the free market decide what an English degree is worth.

SeaSalted · 1 year ago

Join the conversation


IDEAS is the place you'll find essays, analysis and opinion on every aspect of life and public affairs in Hawaii. We want to showcase smart ideas about the future of Hawaii, from the state's sharpest thinkers, to stretch our collective thinking about a problem or an issue. Email news@civilbeat.org to submit an idea.


You're officially signed up for our daily newsletter, the Morning Beat. A confirmation email will arrive shortly.

In the meantime, we have other newsletters that you might enjoy. Check the boxes for emails you'd like to receive.

  • What's this? Be the first to hear about important news stories with these occasional emails.
  • What's this? You'll hear from us whenever Civil Beat publishes a major project or investigation.
  • What's this? Get our latest environmental news on a monthly basis, including updates on Nathan Eagle's 'Hawaii 2040' series.
  • What's this? Get occasional emails highlighting essays, analysis and opinion from IDEAS, Civil Beat's commentary section.

Inbox overcrowded? Don't worry, you can unsubscribe
or update your preferences at any time.