Student Loans, Basic Needs and the Public Good

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Last week, I wrote about the recent federal omnibus bill and heard from several readers—thank you!

I was a full Pell recipient when I was an undergraduate student at Michigan State University in the mid- to late 1980s. I also qualified for a full Michigan Competitive Scholarship. Tuition was $41 a credit. In addition to the grant and scholarship awards, I was able to pay for rent, food and other necessities by working at least 20 hours a week while I was in school. I grew up in a working-class family that did not use credit cards and parents who were vehemently opposed to loans. I was fortunate that I did not have to take out any student loans while I was at MSU. This reality is no longer possible for the overwhelming majority of our students, and, as many have pointed out, it hasn’t been for a long time.

Over the weekend, I read two pieces: one, “The Unintended Consequences of Federal Direct Student Aid After Five Decades of Practice” by F. King Alexander (in Change) and, two, “Why Some Students Are Skipping College” by Jodie Adams Kirshner (in The Atlantic) that touched on student loans. I recommend both. Taken together, I thought about the following issues I believe all discussions of student loans should take into consideration:

State Disinvestment

First, state investment in public higher education has been on a decline since the 1980s. Alexander points out that the U.S. has fallen from first to 16th in bachelor’s degree attainment for 25- to 34-year-olds among OECD countries. “For the first time in U.S. history, the younger generation has fewer years of education than the generation before them.” He reminds us that our public colleges and universities in the U.S. serve close to 80 percent of college students.

For-Profit Institutions

Second, some of the highest undergraduate student loan debt is among students at for-profit institutions. “Currently, among all public, not-for-profit, and for-profit four-year institutions, students attending for-profit colleges and universities are awarded a much greater share of federal direct student aid grants and loans than students in other institutional sectors” (Alexander).

For context, some interesting student loan debt statistics from the Education Data Initiative.

  • Public university attendees borrow an average of $32,880 to attain a bachelor’s degree.
  • Private, nonprofit university attendees borrow $35,983.
  • Private, for-profit students borrow $42,551.

Basic Needs

I started my career in higher ed in a financial aid office overseeing loans—distribution and collection. I ran budgeting workshops and strongly encouraged (begged) students not to max out on their Stafford loans. However, even back then, students told me that they needed the money for basic needs—housing, food, childcare, health care, clothing. They couldn’t work full-time and go to school at the same time, and their families had been relying on them to help out with groceries and childcare. To many of them, the loans looked like an easy way to solve so many problems at once. At that time, minimum wage in the U.S. was $3.35. It would have taken them approximately 300 hours working at minimum wage to gross $1,000. According to Bryce McKibben, senior director of policy and advocacy at the Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice, “three in five students in college do not have enough to eat or a safe place to live.”

Public Good

We know that education levels correspond to crucial elements to our collective futures: one, belief in science, and two, belief in the climate crisis are just two obvious points.

Equity

Student loan debt disproportionately impacts women and students of color, especially Black students. There is so much more to dig into here, especially around loan consolidation (higher interest rates) and loans put into collection and I would welcome a conversation with readers on these topics. Send me an email at [email protected] if you are interested.


Mary Churchill is professor of the practice and director of the higher education administration program at Boston University, where she also serves as associate dean. She is co-author of When Colleges Close: Leading in a Time of Crisis.

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