Learning Over Loans: Youth Empowerment to Fight Student Debt

By Zeeshan Ali

Every day, rather than focusing on academic, social, and professional mobility, college students are encumbered with the weight of student loans. It is undeniable that the fight for debt forgiveness and the need for educational institutions to value academics over monetary funds has never been greater. As a recent college graduate and a young person of color, I have endured firsthand the burden of student debt. Between myself and my two siblings, we owe nearly $70,000 in student loans, on top of my parents’ $130,000. Being a first-generation American and a second-generation college student, I have been taught that a bachelor’s degree is the pathway to success, however, I remain limited by the financial burden of higher-education. Though I aspire to attend law school as well as obtain my PhD, I often question the availability of academic pursuits. Even with the support of my peers and family, I fear such destinations will be unachievable because of the debilitating effects of student debt. 

Since a critical mass of employers require degrees for consideration in their workforces, obtaining debt is inevitable. Research from Georgetown University, estimated that 25%-30% of new jobs will require a four-year college degree. However, an article by Steve Lohr with the New York Times illustrates that minority communities are severely impacted with the current college requirement mandated by companies, as 76% of Black adults and 83% of Latino adults do not hold a degree. The lack of access to high quality K-16 supports in communities of color perpetuates structural racial injustice in the job market. And, with an average federal student loan debt of $37,000 per student, the pursuit of higher education is turning into a pipe dream. In a recent report by the Education Data Initiative, student loan debt is estimated to be nearly $1.7 trillion and rising, totaling more than the GDP of 180 countries. Additionally, another report by EDI found that Black students owe an estimated $25,000 more in student loans than their White counterparts, and 67% of Hispanic and Latino students are suffering from loan debt over $40,000, stifling access to upward socioeconomic mobility. 

But what does this accumulation of student debt mean? And how can students advocate for an agenda centered around financially acceptable tuition?

First, students must hold their universities and colleges accountable, to ensure those institutions properly inform students of loans. During my college orientation, I recall hearing little to nothing about student loans and the  negative impacts such as compounding interest rates, the constant mental stress of repayments, and the lack of debt canceling legislation. Universities must be more transparent and communicative with students, especially those of marginalized groups, who face debt on a more intense level. Furthermore, universities need to educate prospective and current students on scholarships offered, this can mean the difference between attending college and not. 

The youth of today have the tools and stories to ensure their actions are noticed by administrators and elected officials. Earlier this year, students from North Carolina Central University traveled to Washington, D.C. to demand student loan forgiveness. Mya Bass, a student from NCUU said, “education is imperative for our advancement, especially for Black and Brown people. It should be treated as a necessity and not a privilege.” In addition to public protests, students can meet with legislators representing their district to demand action. This can be in the form of introducing student loan canceling legislation or reallocating funds to universities to support loan-bearing students. But most importantly, students must share their story through opinion pieces, blogs, and on social media. The issue of student debt for communities of color has flown under the radar for too long, and it is vital that we bring this situation into the mainstream. When students focus their efforts on a common goal, it is much more likely that higher education administrators and elected officials will take notice.

To create a healthy educational structure that supports racial justice, workforce strength, and overall well-being, the voices of the economically affected must be echoed in every level of government, from the local city hall to the chambers of federal congress. More than ever, youth vote is needed. With the 2022 midterm elections closing in, it is the youth that hold the influence to elect those in office who empower, encourage, and enable students to achieve the most educated form of themselves, all while reducing the encumbrances of student debt. In such candidates, we must demand change in our financial aid procedures, create better student loan forgiveness systems, and to guarantee that student voices remain present. For we are the social changers of today and the policy creators of tomorrow.