Though we’ve previously discussed the “The Disparate Truth of Debt in Higher Education,” on this blog, it’s time to revisit it from a new angle with fresh evidence that amplifies the need to act now to reduce debt disparity because “[o]nly when equity is combined with access will the full promise of American higher education truly be fulfilled.” Right now, too many students of color are falling through the cracks and missing educational opportunities or struggling to finance their education, and this is a drag on our nation’s stability and conscience.
We must do more to secure equitable futures, and this is why debt-free college is essential. “The ideal of higher education as a public good—once inextricably linked to the American Dream—has been all but abandoned in favor of the college degree as a private commodity,” and this has generated high levels of debt and depression for those who pursue the American Dream against the odds.
The Brookings Institution released a study (October 2016) that shows that Black college graduates disproportionately borrow more to finance education than white students and accrue more in interest to secure those loans, “almost twice as much as their white counterparts.” Looking at the data, it seems clear that generational poverty isn’t a myth; rather, it appears to be intentional by design, and this is a structural failure that needs to be fixed. The study concludes more must be done; it’s not enough to treat the symptoms, it’s time to acknowledge and remedy the root causes of the disparity that lead to the racial debt gap.
Another recent study reports: “One in four children in the [United States] is now born into poverty (Carsey Institute, 2013). There is strong evidence linking childhood poverty with adverse physical and mental health outcomes in adulthood, irrespective of socioeconomic status (SES) later in life.” Furthermore, authors Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir show there is a “mind-set produced by scarcity” that impacts decision-making. When the decision matrix is blurred this way, thinking through the long-term implications of debt is an afterthought—a consequence of coping with the present threat of scarcity. Many students who struggle in scarcity may feel an immediate need to solve a crisis, and in this case amassing student debt is a survival mechanism, whatever the cost. Indeed, many of the now shuttered or strictly regulated for-profit schools took advantage of this phenomenon for far too long.
Another consideration for people of color who defy the odds and gain the privilege to attend college or university is they become bearers of the promise—the American Dream. That is they carry the burden of success or failure on their backs for the entire family and by extension—community. Therefore, there is a fine balancing act when it comes to financing education in terms of educational value versus personal sacrifice. The pressure of scarcity invites immediate sacrifice, as Mullainathan and Shafir show. It should not be this way; indeed, the pressure is unbearable without the mind-set that enables one to embrace the risk of more debt just for a shot at upward mobility.
Of course, this creates a need for financial counseling and clear and transparent information. The worst case scenario, perhaps, is when students take on debt without obtaining a degree and feel lost in the process—commodified with nothing to show for their sacrifice but more debt that pushes them right back into abject poverty. This is why access and affordability are crucial factors in student success. Expanding aid is imperative. An obvious intervention point in this crisis is to invest more in students at the get go and provide necessary student services that foster retention and completion, such as child care services, veteran support services, and financial counseling that consists of more than standing in a financial aid line and filling out forms.
While we wait for the day that higher education is affordable and accessible for all, there are some useful tools that help alleviate the burden of debt. For example, students can find out which federal student loans they have, who their servicer is, and get repayment info: nslds.ed.gov. Borrowers can also visit Higher Ed Not Debt to learn about Income-Driven Repayment Plans (IDRP), and tell Congress not to ignore student debt. State disinvestment needs to be addressed, too; send student debt stories to state legislators so they keep the issue front and center in the competition for funds. It’s time to take back higher education as a public good and restore the core mission to educate for freedom and success.