The Real Cost of Student Loan Debt in America


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For some people, the phrase “student debt crisis” is an abstract concept, but for Tasha Cole, it’s very real.

“Last time I checked,” she tells Shondaland, “it was $300,000.”

That’s a monthly payment of about $2,400 — about the departure price of a one-bedroom apartment in Los Angeles, where the 52-year-old lives. She is a social worker, a job with a starting salary of around $47,000 a year. For mathematicians, it tracks her loan payment — which has skyrocketed due to high interest rates, she says — and other expenses such as housing, food and transportation (costs that loans students do not take into account when taking into account a monthly payment) impossible. “How can I ever get [add “out”?] from under that? It’s literally never going to go away.

Cole went back to school to get an advanced degree after a divorce, thinking it would help her career and boost her salary. It was, but not enough to account for the cost of living, inflation, and interest. The large debt weighs her down, generating stress and anxiety. “That’s a lot of money,” she said. “It impacts your whole life.”

Millions of others feel the same. Some 45 million borrowers have federal student loans, according to the White House, with the typical undergraduate staring at a $25,000 bill after college. There’s a $1.6 trillion cumulative cloud hanging over the nation’s collective head, the White House reports.

Of course, President Joe Biden announcement in august, which promised to wipe out up to $10,000 for borrowers earning less than $125,000 a year ($250,000 for married couples) and up to $20,000 for those on Pell grants, marks a historic recognition by the federal government of the seriousness of the student debt situation. is – a strain on people’s economy and personal lives that prevents them from buying a home, having children, starting a business, or other untold parts of the American dream. And while the latest action – which was partly a response to pressure from activists and party leaders calling for the cancellation of everything student loan debt – represents progress, it’s just a small drop in the ocean, many say.

President Joe Biden announces student loan relief August 24, 2022 in the Roosevelt Room of the White House in Washington, DC

Olivier Douliery//Getty Images

“We’re talking huge numbers,” says Braxton Brewington, spokesperson for the Debt Collective, a debtors’ syndicate that was formed and galvanized to advocate on behalf of people with all kinds of debt, including student loans. “Student loan debt is nearly $2 trillion, more than medical debt and credit card debt combined. Everything can be erased with a simple click of a pen. It interferes with lives, and even more so if you are black. »

It’s true. Black students, like Cole, tend to borrow more, studies show, and owe more. In addition to the fact that blacks and Latinos earn less than their white counterparts and Black and Latina women earn less than men, student loan debt can seem, to many people, like a trap. “I was a teacher when I got married,” Cole says. “You know they make little money, but to be a teacher you need certain qualifications. But why would a teacher need a student loan of $125,000?” His debt is also affecting his family. She says when her daughter recently filled out a loan application, one of the questions was, “Did either of your parents graduate from college?” “Why would they ask that?” Cole said. It’s like this trap is getting bigger.”

For her, the $10,000 relief is insufficient, especially since President Biden has said in campaign that it would eliminate all federal student debt related to two- and four-year public college and university undergraduate tuition for debt holders earning up to $125,000. “I feel like African Americans have been cheated,” Cole says. “During Covid, debt was interrupted with the click of a button. Thus, they could eliminate it with one click. Why do we have to go through all these hoops? »

Natalia Abrams, founder of Student Debt Crisis Center, agrees that while this is a step in the right direction, the $10,000 relief is too little, too late. “We’re called ‘crisis’ for a reason,” she says, noting that for many borrowers, it’s the interest on loans that makes it difficult to repay them. “Student borrowers aren’t asking for handouts—they’re asking for fairness and fairness. They don’t understand why they repay loans multiple times.

washington, dc may 12 student borrowers gather near the white house to tell president biden to cancel student debt may 12, 2020 in washington, dc photo by paul morigigetty images for us, the 45 million

Student borrowers gather near the White House to tell President Biden to cancel student debt on May 12, 2020 in Washington, DC

Paul Morigi//Getty Images

Debt activists argue that the whole structure of student loans is fraught with inequality right down to its roots. “There was a time when college was free or low cost,” says Brewington. And those who say, “If you borrow money, you should pay it back,” may not only be forgetting that the U.S. government bailed out Wall Streetthe automobile industryand the airline industrybut also may not know why college has become so expensive in the first place.

In the late 1960s, then-California Governor Ronald Reagan’s disdain for the “hippie” anti-war culture on college campuses, such as in Berkeley, California, led to a conservative backlash against the free higher education in general. On the recommendation of an economic adviser who warned of the dangers of an “educated proletariat” (working class), Reagan helped usher in a whole new way of thinking about the university, ultimately resulting in a plan to raise tuition fees. Of course, tuition in federally funded public schools has been steadily rising since then (not to mention private schools or for-profit colleges accused of defrauding students).

To complicate the matter further: in 2005, 18 Democrats broke ranks with the party to support a Republican-sponsored bill to student loans ineligible for bankruptcy protection. In 2009, when the University of California unveiled a plan to raise tuition fees by 32%, the students had had enough, sparking protests; Abrams’ Student Debt Crisis Center grew out of this setback. “It’s a civil rights issue,” she said. “It’s a multi-generational problem but it mainly affects young people. Canceling student debt will increase GDP, consumer spending and trust in government.

Opponents of student debt cancellation argue it won’t really do much to help the economy. But those who work on this issue, like Rosa Clementa freelance journalist who once ran for vice president as a member of the Green Party in 2008, to say that resistance to student loan relief cannot be disentangled from the political history that created the debt in the first place and from the capitalist structure that puts profits ahead of people.

washington, dc august 25 student borrowers hold a rally outside the white house to celebrate president biden's cancellation of student debt and to begin the fight to cancel any remaining debt on august 25, 2022 in washington, dc photo by paul morigigetty pictures for us the 45m

Student borrowers hold a rally in front of the White House to celebrate President Biden’s cancellation of student debt and to begin the fight to cancel any remaining debt on August 25, 2022 in Washington, DC

Paul Morigi//Getty Images

Much like Cole, Clemente — who has an undergraduate degree, a master’s degree, and is working on a doctorate — feels like she’s been drawn into a trap. “My generation learned that if you don’t go to university, you won’t have a life,” explains the 50-year-old. “I made the choice to go to college, but they marketed it to us and encouraged us to take these loans.”

And when your parents can’t afford exactly more than $35,000 to send you to school, you see your only options like signing a loan or working in low-wage jobs. His total student debt is, like Cole’s, about $300,000, making home ownership impossible. As of now, her loans are deferred and she plans to join a group of more than 50 borrowers who will go on strike and simply not repay their loans when payments resume in January 2023. “I am not giving them three thousand before paying rent or putting food on the table for my family.

She says, “People take out loans for many reasons. When small businesses fail, they get help. Banks, automakers – they got bailed out and nobody had a problem with it. Millions of dollars are going to Ukraine. I don’t understand why they don’t just sign the bill and scrap everything.

Malcolm Venable is senior writer at Shondaland. Follow him on Twitter @malcolmvenable.

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