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Utahns who applied for President Joe Biden’s student debt relief plan were more likely to live in counties with more diversity, lower income or both.
Nearly 200,000 Utahns applied for one-time relief or were deemed automatically eligible through the program, according to data released by the White House. The U.S. Education Department had approved about 63% of those and sent them to loan servicers for discharge before the program was frozen late last year in response to federal district and circuit court rulings.
The U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments on Feb. 28 and is weighing what to do with the plan to wipe away billions in student debt. A decision on related cases is anticipated for June.
That leaves thousands of Utahns in limbo as the program remains on hold amid a web of lawsuits and an intense partisan battle. If the plan survives, it would cancel up to $20,000 in federal student loan debt for borrowers earning less than $125,000 a year.
To get a closer look at the number of debt relief applicants, The Salt Lake Tribune examined ZIP codes associated with approximately 23.6 million applications, including about 170,000 from Utah, through data originally provided to POLITICO.
The Tribune then linked those ZIP codes to counties and used American Community Survey data to determine demographic and economic characteristics.
The data showed 167,144 applications linked to ZIP codes in 22 of the state’s 29 counties.
That’s about two-thirds of people who were eligible to apply, which is average compared to other states.
How diverse are the applicants?
POLITICO’s analysis of all 50 states found people seeking student loan relief were more likely to live in lower income areas with majority non-white populations.
The Tribune’s analysis of Utah counties found similar results.
Salt Lake, Utah, Davis and Weber counties had the most applicants, accounting for more than 75% of the applications included in the education department’s data.
The four counties are the most populous in the state, and around 5% of the population in each county applied for the program. They also are all more diverse than the state as a whole, ranging from 78.3% to 83.4% white, compared to 83.7% statewide.
Utah and Weber counties have a per-capita income lower than the state average of $35,220, and Utah County has a higher poverty rate than average with 9.3% of its population living below the poverty line.
Salt Lake and Weber counties have close to the statewide poverty rate, with 8.4% of the population living below the poverty line compared to 8.6% statewide.
Looking at lower incomes among applicants
Seven other counties had between 1,000 and 10,000 applicants. They all are less diverse than the state as a whole.
Five of them – Washington, Cache, Tooele, Iron and Box Elder – have a lower per-capita income than the state average. Washington, Cache and Iron also have more people living in poverty than Utah does as a whole.
Summit and Wasatch counties both have higher per-capita income and a lower poverty rate than the state average.
Eleven counties – Carbon, Duchesne, Grand, Juab, Kane, Millard, Morgan, San Juan, Sanpete, Sevier and Uintah – had fewer than than 1,000 applications.
All of them are less diverse than the state as a whole, though most also have a lower per-capita income and higher poverty rate.
The remaining seven counties are in ZIP codes with fewer than than 100 applicants, which did not show up in the data the federal education department provided to Politico. That data showed 5,321 applications in Utah are not linked to a particular ZIP code.
A challenge from red states, without Utah
Applications for the program closed when legal challenges gained traction and the Biden administration was ordered to halt the program.
Two cases challenging the program have made it to the U.S. Supreme Court. One is from a group of Republican-led states, which does not include Utah. The other originated with two individuals who did, not qualify for the full benefits of the forgiveness program.
With a decision expected by late June, no matter what the Supreme Court decides, a pandemic-related pause on federal student loan payments for all borrowers will be ending after nearly three years in place.
The Education Department has extended the pause until June 30, 2023. Regardless of the case outcome, the federal agency has said payments will resume 60 days after the pause ends.
People who want to follow the status of the relief program and the payment pause can subscribe to updates at ed.gov/subscriptions by selecting “Federal Student Loan Borrower Updates.”
There also is more information about the program at studentaid.gov/manage-loans/forgiveness-cancellation/debt-relief-info.
Megan Banta is The Salt Lake Tribune’s data enterprise reporter, a philanthropically supported position. The Tribune retains control over all editorial decisions.