Choosing Not to Go Into Debt for College

Nicole Brown wrote the following after reading, and being so affected by, last month’s (May 2016) Classism Exposed blog post on the possibility that students are deciding not to attend college due to the fear of loan debt.

ball and chain attached to a man with robe and mortar boardAfter reading that low-income and working-class students may be choosing not to go to college for fear of taking on debt, I thought to myself: This is certainly the case and more pervasive than some would think.

Others need to know what shape this may take. L.A. Kurth knows from hearing the feedback of the students. And I have a sense of how and why it happens, too, from mentoring high school students and having family and friends make the same decision when they were high school seniors.

The students in Kurth’s class responded to a Yes! magazine assignment about loan strikes (refusing to repay) by stating that the people they know did not go on to college because of their fear of having to repay loan debt. One contributor, Anonymous, said his/her friend from high school, who was equally academically talented (“a great student”), decided not to go to the local college because of the $7,000 a year tuition cost. Only a student loan would have allowed him to go, and he did not want to take on the debt. In another example, the contributor mentioned her/his cousin who also sacrificed their dream of a college education because of the $1,000 cost to enroll in the local community college.

Reading this, as a former admissions volunteer for my alma mater, and as a person who advocates for college access especially for kids from communities like mine (working-class and Black), I felt sad and angry. I saw those two students’ limited options as the living example of Langston Hughes’ poem A Dream Deferred, much like Kavita Cardoza described in her piece on first generation college students struggling in their first year at college.

Classist Rebuttals

I am sure that I am not the only one who sees one talented student’s decision to forgo his/her aspirations, one that they spent years working hard towards, as a tragedy. And unfortunately, our feelings are confirmed when we learn that a Millennial college graduate who is working full time earns about $17,500 more per year than her/his peers holding only a high school diploma. This is a tragedy, because those kids would now have a steeper hill to climb for economic stability for themselves and their families.

Having learned about the college admissions process, I knew the rebuttals I was supposed to use with high school students in an attempt to convince them to follow through with the college application process. However, many rebuttals about the outrageous cost of attending college suggest that students are operating with limited or misguided information. The advice is grounded in “rugged individualism” and absolves the systems and individuals who truly are to blame for perpetuating social and economic inequality.

students protesting to cancel student debtI think the worst advice I would give was, “…this is such a small amount of money, you can take out a loan for that. Don’t decide not to go!”

I was driven to tell mentees and students this, because I had made the decision to take on private loans (and unfortunately have my dad be the co-signer) a decade earlier. I had everything riding on the assumption that taking out a great deal of loan debt to attend a prestigious private college would pay off in a successful career that would allow me to repay the loans by the time I was 30.

I truly believed the advice I was offering. It would get them in the door to a college they loved – with the hopes that they would stay no matter the cost – once they saw how much opportunity they enjoyed while there. I believed they deserved a spot in a college of their choice and should not be inhibited at any cost. Their hard work merited it. Their future success was written for them. They just had to step into it. That alone would make it all worth it.

Perpetuating Social and Economic Inequality

What I had not realized was that I was attached to a narrative, a fictional one, that no longer works for most Americans in our current economy. It states that if you work hard academically, you will rightfully earn a spot in a college, which will result in you having a successful career. Many of us believe this whether we are immigrants (like my family) or born in the United States in any class from low income to owning-class.

At times, I am not sure which socioeconomic class holds tighter to the belief or what intersectional identity (i.e., immigrant, female, etc.), because it certainly drove most of the decisions for the first 25 years of my life. However, I think the grip loosens as dreams never manifest into reality. And those on the receiving end of that misfortune are most often at the bottom rungs of the economic ladder.

When most first gens withdraw from college within the first two years, they return to their home communities. There, younger relatives or family friends see that no matter how academically talented a person is in high school the promise of financial and career success is not a given.

What I had not realized was that I was attached to a narrative, a fictional one, that no longer works for most Americans in our current economy.”

According to Monica Gray, director of programs at the D.C.-based College Success Foundation, every student that she has worked with has at least one relative who made it to college only to drop-out from lack of support or other challenges that affect first gens, who are often low-income as well.

Her fear is the same as mine, that the “community narrative” around going to college is changed in the neighborhoods from which the students come. Other young people see disillusioned and debt-burdened students returning home and as Gray has experienced with students “…is what a lot of people use as a reason…not to try to go.”

Yeah, a $2,000 Loan Is a Lot of Money

The reality for L.A. Kurth’s students is that a few thousand bucks is a lot of money – especially to owe while it accrues interest. Seeing the value of money and how far it can stretch depends on what class a person belongs to and is much like the saying “beauty is in the eye of the beholder.”

I remember with one of my first summer jobs in the late 1990s, I was slated to receive an $2,000 stipend, and I felt rich! I knew I did not have ask my parents for money for school clothes that fall. Contrary to popular belief (held mostly by those who have never experienced poverty), poor and low-income folks are very good with money and know how to make a little yield a lot.

When you don’t have much money to waste, you learn to prioritize wants and needs, knowing down to the penny, where you could have saved your last dime. Something that small can be the difference between you having money for the last bus home or sleeping on a park bench overnight. It means the difference between having money to keep the lights on or buy food where both become luxuries when you are broke.

Many working in college access programming would argue that sticker shock for students and their parents is an issue of misinformation where they do not realize there is aid that would bring the cost down from $50,000 per year, down to possibly $2,300 depending on the resources of the family. At the same time, $2,000 is still a lot to consider, especially for the parents who are overwhelmed already with the fear of debt (or more of it). Getting their buy in would be hard when you cannot promise them that their child will get a job upon graduation, especially when the parent knows of many young people in their community or family who went away to school but did not finish. Therefore, a few thousand bucks is a lot of money to promise to pay back.

It is an unquantifiable loss when any young person who wants to go to college cannot because of money, and fear of crushing debt. There is merit in the Yes! Magazine article about striking and not paying back one’s loan debt. However, this situation gets resolved, it will take a use of power from the masses to shift the shameful loan debt reality of the American higher education system.

3 Responses

  1. Lita Kurth

    Thanks, Nicole,
    I really appreciate what you added to the conversation. A piece of the puzzle I didn’t address was that poor people often don’t have the social capital to distinguish between a pretty good gamble (Ivy League or well-respected public school; engineering or medicine as majors) and one where the odds are often really tough or non-existent (for-profit, online colleges, degrees in sociology or anthropology) I know there are exceptions, but I’m very concerned that students who really need to find a job upon graduation sometimes end up without guidance in majors that have minimal prospects.If I were to do over, I would not have majored first in French and History, but rather in education, educational psychology or speech therapy, equally interesting subjects that had definite careers connected to them. Once I had money coming in, I could always have gone back and gotten a degree or taken classes for pure love and pleasure.

    1. Nicole

      Hi LA!
      It’s awesome that you responded, thanks so much for doing so! I thought your post was informative and scratched the surface b/c I wish I were a fly on the wall to see the entire class discussion that day! I applaud teachers and think the work you do is so vital to all communities–a very under appreciated profession (yes, profession!!!) 😀 You’re absolutely right LA, there is so much more that we could add to the discussion: the college process is very classed, and definitely privileges the social norms and ideals of the middle and owning-class so that poor and working-class students don’t have the knowledge that would allow us to see the same value of a Ivy League. Its about the networks at those schools, which is why many go and believe those networks will result in jobs (which they often do!). And plus those schools have more money to give. I have had Mentees who had suffere from the initial sticker shock of the schools costs and could not imagine how it would be possible for a school to only require them to pay 5-10% per year of $55,000 tuition. Didn’t seem possible to them and they then doubted whether they were deserving or smart enough to go to an institution that would offer such a discount to them 🙁 They didn’t have an understanding that the owning-class highly value (and reward) networks (i.e.social capital) through giving internships, interviews and then jobs to those who have been vetted by others in their field…poor and working-class kids (in my experience), were like you said, less likely to take that gamble. And then their neighborhoods are targeted heavily for enrolling in these for-profits. They have advertisements as bus stops, train stations, flyers in the neighborhood and played on the radio station of the demographic group they know will choose their school (Black and Latino) because we may not know of other options…which goes back to social capital.

      However, I’m of the mind that poor and working-class kids should be free to choose to their majors and shouldn’t be tied to a business or working track…it screams “vocational” Ed to me…(although vocational ed is another story, one I respect, I just want to point out the stigma here the name has carried over the years). Having gone to a private school, I was socialized to think for 4 years to think that Liberal Arts colleges were a inevitable option for me because our school, attended by owning-class students, treated the college process as such. I remembered the feeling of being sucker punched when a counselor for my program (that helped me apply to the prep school) said I couldn’t go to my top choice schools because I wouldn’t be able to afford it. I felt like I was tricked into believing that I was equal to my classmates and could share in the same dreams and envision something fun and different for myself like they could (and be the first in the family to do so) until that harsh realization. I was stubborn and didn’t listen to my counselor! It’s a choice that has had a mixed bag of consequences to this day, some good, some bad, but definitely complex which at 17, would be difficult to navigate. But I loved my undergrad experience, hands down 🙂

      I think all of the colleges, Liberal Arts and ones with a career focus should be preparing students with skill sets that are diverse but also in better alignment with employers which may be as simple as computer literacy, ability to read and balance a check book, critical thinking and social skills. The non-business Majors and Minors have been around for decades so I think it has less to do with that then maybe the institutions themselves requiring a less well-rounded degree requirements…I’m not sure. I know the Chamber of Commerce and other Business advocacy groups have been involved in the College- and Career-Readiness discussions at the federal level and also within the states for sure. So they are seeking more alignment especially since institutions of Higher Ed (IHE) are now under more scrutiny for their student outcomes. I think a multitude of changes are needed at IHEs but I think the Majors in and of themselves, play less of a role in a students lack of preparedness for their first jobs. Many for-profits say they want students with diverse interests, so more literature Majors applying for Financial Analyst positions then the traditional Business and accounting Major! I think it depends on the particular employers and how well the student is at interviewing, etc. for the job. Networks are a huge help and unfortunately, that is a part of social capital that still benefits those with middle and upper-middle class socioeconomic statuses.

      1. Hi Nicole and LA! I really enjoyed hearing what you had to say about paying for college, especially as it relates to the practical application of your studies after school. I think it’s really tough to commit the time and money to school when the “unknown” is waiting for you on the other side. I agree that no matter what school (trade or college) you go to, they should be preparing you for the workforce. It was quite an eye-opener for me when I left school! Thanks again for taking the time to share your thoughts, it really opened my eyes.

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