On August 24, when President Biden, in conjunction with the Department of Education, announced his income-based student debt relief plan, the reaction from both sides of the political aisle was swift and contentious, with incendiary rhetoric deployed to politicize what is a multifaceted issue. With U.S. student loan borrowers, many from vulnerable communities, owing a staggering $1.75 trillion in federal and private student loan debt, it’s no wonder this subject continues to elicit strong opinions.
Unfortunately, what’s gotten lost in this discussion are the very real, human stories of those confronting often insurmountable debt in their pursuit of what should be attainable for all who desire it: a quality education.
Saul Garcia has one such story.
A study in steely determination, Saul’s story begins in his native Boston, with boundless ambition but minimal funds to pursue higher education. As a then-industrious high-school junior with a passion for engineering, he pulled off an impressive feat, managing the stress of a 40-hours-per-week, $7-per-hour job selling electronics while maintaining a 3.6 grade-point average.
So when the time came to determine his academic future, word of mouth among his classmates led Saul to our organization, Bottom Line, a nonprofit that works with degree-aspiring students of color from under-resourced communities to get into and through college and successfully launch their careers. One of our advisers worked with Saul on developing a success path, which entailed advising him on the best college for him academically, financially and socially for his engineering career aspirations (Worcester Polytechnic Institute). Bottom Line assisted with successfully completing the application process and helped him secure two separate scholarships to fund his education — a necessity for Saul, given his inability to afford the school’s $50,000 tuition.
There are millions of Sauls throughout our nation — untapped young potential residing within our communities whose future success will help determine the economic vibrancy of our country. Their stories won’t have the same positive outcomes, hampered by a lack of financial support and vital resources that impede their academic and professional journey.
It doesn’t have to be this way. As a society, it’s time we radically rethink how to combat student loan debt for future generations.
When considering how we arrived at this crisis, the causes are multilayered. A historically discriminatory higher-education system designed not to support Black and Brown students and facilitate their success. Skyrocketing college tuition in the face of considerable, decades-long wage stagnation. High schools and colleges lack sufficient access to well-trained experts who can support students in making informed decisions about where to go and how to succeed.
Ironically, these types of support, information and resources are abundantly available in wealthy communities across the country. It all adds up to a troubling condition that will continue to plague our nation’s economy and burden our talent pipeline.
While President Biden’s student loan debt forgiveness is a vital first step, until we address college affordability, accessibility and attainment in a more aggressive and significant way, we’ll continue to treat the symptom rather than attack the cause. Here are actionable steps that have the potential to affect systemic change:
— Doubling the maximum annual Pell Grant amount to $13,000 — a mission at the core of the #DoublePell movement. Why? It once covered nearly 75 percent of four-year institution costs for recipients. The Pell Grant has not kept pace with the rising costs of college and now only covers less than a third.
Also, this disproportionately affects the marginalized, as 90 percent of students who receive Pell Grants have a family income of less than $50,000 a year. Without this additional grant aid, millions of students will be unable to pay for most of their college tuition and will be saddled with the albatross of debt for most of their lives.
— Providing students with relationship-based college access advising. It’s about having knowledgeable, caring, well-trained professionals to help students make well-informed decisions that center on affordability, where to apply, and the best schools to attend based on their career goals. Offering more tailored guidance gives students the tools to overcome challenges inherent in the college experience and eventually graduate with a sound career plan.
— Extending guidance and support throughout the college journey. It’s no longer enough to provide academic and career direction during one’s senior year of high school. Since a large part of the debt is owned by students who never complete their degrees, students need continued encouragement to stay the course and ultimately graduate — with the goal of debt being less than $31,000. External research on Bottom Line’s model proves it works, as students who receive long-term and personalized support through college are 23 percent more likely to earn a bachelor’s degree within four years than their peers.
We must dismantle the false narrative of “college isn’t for everyone,” and improve the viability of earning a college education. It’s about a financial and human investment upfront that pays future dividends. The actions we take now will not only position students for future economic and social mobility but will also eliminate America’s student debt nightmare moving forward.
Many balk at the cost of all this. We should, instead, consider the cost implications of not pursuing this path — as the future vitality of our country hangs in the balance.