Student Debt is a Justice Issue

Way back in 2008, in the first once-in-a-lifetime economic recession of your life, many adults had landed on a novel solution for the sudden career lurch they found themselves in: college. There was a 16 percent leap in college enrollment from 2007 to 2010, much of it driven by nontraditional students who went back to school to pick up some new skills for a new career path. 

Of course, the economy rebounded and things returned to normal, for a while, but the legacy of that brief balloon in college enrollment has stuck with us in a few surprising ways. For one thing, 2010 was the first year that America’s student loan debt outweighed its credit card debt. For another, colleges started hiking costs to compensate. 

Today, the cost of college is 25 percent higher than it was in 2008, and student debt has more than doubled. Around 44 million Americans owe a total of $1.6 trillion in debt, and the costs are rising more all the time. In 2007, your average student owed $18,233 in student loans, adjusted for inflation. Today, they owe $36,665. 

And it goes without saying, there is no reason to assume these numbers are going to reverse course anytime soon. In 2020, when COVID-19 pandemic sent the economy into another tailspin, college simply wasn’t a financially feasible option for many people in the same way it was a decade ago. Most states in the U.S. have been cutting funding for higher education since the 2008 recession, and numbers have never returned to where they were pre-recession.

“It really does start to beg the question of what constitutes public higher education,” Michael Mitchell, senior director and counselor of Equity and Inclusion at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. He told CNBC Make It that “nearly every state has shifted the responsibility of funding higher education from the state to students over the last 25 years, with the most drastic shift occurring in the past decade.”

These stark numbers paint a worrisome picture for a number of reasons. Many feel stuck between going after the sort of stable career that may require higher education, and a life unburdened by student loans. 

But for many Americans, student debt is more than a financial irritant. The more it grows, the more it comes to represent a genuine obstacle to sound mental health, the freedom to pursue a calling or start a family and even overall quality of life. It’s a burden that affects one in eight Americans, which means the Church should probably start to take the word “crisis” in “student debt crisis” seriously. 

A Justice Issue?

If you’re someone burned with student debt, you probably need little convincing of this. But if you’re not, it’s probably hard to see why you should care outside of some general sympathy for the afflicted. But there’s a case to be made that the student debt crisis is now at a point where it’s affecting our collective wellbeing and casting a shadow over the future. If you’re concerned about the future of society, there are several reasons you should be concerned about student debt. 

For one thing, the falling birth rate in the U.S. has been a source of concern for some time, as Americans struggle to figure out why young adults are delaying marriage and children. The birth rate hit a record low in 2020, dropping by four percent from the previous year. To maintain a steady population, experts say a group of a thousand women need to have about 2.1 children, a number known as the “fertility rate.” In the U.S. today, the fertility rate is at 1.6. 

There is no one answer to why this is happening, as research suggests everything from growing gender equity in the workplace to looming despair about the climate plays a role in why people are putting off having kids. That said, student debt is a significant factor. Research says that 21 percent of borrowers have delayed getting married and 26 percent have put off having kids because they don’t know if they can afford it. Moreover, and 36 percent of borrowers are waiting to buy a house because of their debt, which impacts family planning decisions. 

Family and home ownership represent stability, and the further off those feel for Americans, the more upended their lives become. One study found that 42 percent of borrowers with over five thousand dollars of debt said their student loans have worsened their mental and emotional health — a higher percentage than people with other types of debt. The emotions felt by students with debt range from frustration (56 percent) to feeling overwhelmed (48 percent) to feelings of shame (24 percent). 

And the impact can be even greater for students of color. The average Black student loan borrower owes around four thousand dollars more than the average White borrower, and pays down around 6 percent less annually. The ongoing racial wealth gap exacerbates Black Americans from being able to pay off their loans at the same rate White Americans are, carrying racial inequity onto yet another generation as Black families are unable to accumulate wealth at the same rate as their White peers. 

Gender inequality is a favor as well, as women have about two-thirds of the nation’s total amount of student debt despite representing just 56 percent of college students. A woman with a master’s degree tends to make about what a man with a bachelor’s degree does, and a woman with a bachelor’s makes about the same as a man with an associate’s degree, on average. 

All this means that college debt sits at the intersection of a number of different long standing American problems, hamstringing our attempts to heal things like gender and racial inequality. It’s not hard to see the breaking point this is building towards. One in eight people are feeling the squeeze of a crisis that is taking a toll on their mental health, their future plans, their financial security and any interest in a family, and the crisis is only escalating. It’s literally playing a role in our ability to repopulate ourselves as a species.  

Kids These Days

One reason many people have a hard time taking the modern student debt crisis seriously is a new spin on the comparison trap. The thinking goes like this: “I went to college. I paid my way through. Sure, it wasn’t easy, but I got through it and learned the value of hard work along the way. Why can’t students today learn the same lesson?”

The logic here is sound. It’s the context that’s changed, often in ways those who graduated before the 2008 recession have a hard time comprehending. To grasp the plight modern college students find themselves in, a little history is helpful.  

See Also

In 1978 and 1979, one year of tuition at a public college cost $8,250 in modern U.S. dollars. At the time, it was common and entirely possible for students to pay their way through college by working part-time after classes, taking a summer job or both. In 1990, that cost had grown to about $9,800. By the 2008 and 2009 school year, a year at a public college cost $16,460, while a private college cost $38,720 and. Now, it’s about $21,370 for a public university and $48,510 for a private college. In other words, an experience that could have once been seen as a lesson in the value of hard work now looks more like a testament to how far the American dream has receded from grasp. 

It’s tempting to blame concern about student debt on kids these days who don’t know how to just put their heads down and get the job done, as upcoming generations have always been an easy scapegoat for social ills. But the reality is that paying for college looks astronomically different to today’s college students than it did just ten years ago, let alone for previous generations. 

Justice Is Served

So what can be done? The wheels of student debt take place far outside the realm of action for most of us. We can’t control how much college costs. 

It’s true that the reasons for ballooning costs are complex, but that’s hardly a reason to give up when the stakes are this high. 

For starters, we can have empathy for people suffering under student debt. Dismissing the pleas to ease the burden of student loans as entitled brats looking for a handout is both ignorant and cruel. Everyone has different experiences with debt, and just because you managed to work your way through college without any debt does not mean that opportunity is available or even possible for everyone else, especially how expensive college has become.

Next, churches are a wonderful network for anyone struggling with college debt. In Galatians 6:2, Christians are called to “bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ,” and many churches are uniquely equipped to connect resources to people in need. This can look like food, housing, job opportunities and even money. Talk to your church leadership about what it would be like to organize a network to help alleviate people in debt. 

Finally, there are political solutions to ballooning student debt. Many of these are bound to get bogged down in partisan bickering and myopic tax debates, but Christians can provide moral clarity and leadership by advocating for fair, ethical policies that will reduce the burden of debt and help  future generations to achieve their career goals without sacrificing their stability or wellbeing. 

Recessions are part of the ebb and flow of any economy. There will be more to come in the near future. But with a little empathy, some organization and a willingness to be generous, the next generation can still find their dreams within reach — their potential, endless. 

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