This story is published as part of StudentNation’s “Vision 2020: Election Stories From the Next Generation,” reports from young journalists that center the concerns of diverse young voters. In this project, working with Dr. Sherri Williams, we recruited young journalists from different backgrounds to develop story ideas and reporting about their peers’ concerns ahead of the most important election of our lives. We’ll continue publishing two stories each week over the course of September.
Jonathan Moraga’s dream school was American University. Originally from Miami, Moraga wanted to study political science in the nation’s capital. But he never expected the high cost of living and student loans would push him out of the university.
When the financial stress became overwhelming, he had to transfer to Florida International University, almost 900 miles away from Washington, where the tuition is $26,000 less than at American University. “Most other students don’t have to work or think about student loans. They just have to think about going to school,” said 21-year-old Moraga. “I just felt at a disadvantage. I know a lot of people who graduate and don’t find a job after college, and the problems are just amplified when you’re a minority.”
Despite the persistence of the student loan debt crisis, young voters are concerned that presidential candidates will once again overlook it as a national crisis—one that frequently prevents students from improving their lives after graduation. With the constant threat of loan payments looming over them, debt holders have to worry about paying them off rather than focusing on their socioeconomic mobility.
Student loan debt is one of the largest forms of debt in the country, with Americans owing a total of $1.6 trillion in both federal and private loans, according to a March 2019 report from the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System.
Students who graduated in 2019 owed an average of $29,900 from private and federal loans, according to data from the US Federal Reserve and the Federal Reserve Bank. Not only that, but 14 percent of parents in 2019 borrowed an average of $37,200 in federal parent plus loans, according to the same data. Nationwide, almost half of black borrowers defaulted on their loans and 75 percent dropped out of college, according to the Center for American Progress.
Student loan debt has inevitably become a larger issue for borrowers of color and low-income borrowers, who are hit the hardest. In Washington, D.C., alone, the racial disparities have influenced educational attainment. For example, in Brentwood, one of the poorest neighborhoods in Washington, around 33 percent of its residents obtain a post-secondary degree, 53.4 percent solely obtain a high school diploma, and 13.6 percent don’t receive a high school diploma at all. In Georgetown, one of the wealthiest areas, 92 percent of its residents have obtained a post-secondary degree, 6.5 percent have obtained a high school diploma and 0.6 percent have not received a high school diploma, according to a study by Statistical Atlas, which takes data from the US Census Bureau. And these trends are mirrored in cities across the country.
The reality for many working-class people is that the educational disparities between these neighborhoods are just one example of the racial wealth gap and how access to education is compromised as a result. Educational attainment is largely influenced by the environment in which a child is reared. According to a study by the Urban Institute, growing up in poverty makes it harder for students to complete college, even if students do overcome that hurdle to gain access to the institution in the first place.
Overall, the most susceptible have become low-income students and students of color who incur insurmountable amounts of debt, which take them years to pay off. Wil Del Pilar, the vice president of higher education policy and practice at the Education Trust Foundation, said that cities like Washington that don’t have a robust community college system “presents unique obstacles.”
“Access is directly linked to proximity,” he said. “If there isn’t a community college that’s close, or an affordable college nearby that’s high quality and that provides students with additional resources like transportation costs, low-income students simply won’t enroll.”
As a result, students in Washington D.C. are some of the nation’s most susceptible to incurring monumental amounts of student debt. This has only been exacerbated by annual tuition increases. “Almost every time I talk with students, they’re asking about student debt and how that impacts them,” said Tim Maggio, a financial aid counselor at American University in Washington. “If you’re a first-generation student, or you don’t have a lot of access to understanding higher education, you don’t understand all the complexities that come with student debt.”
Mark Goudy, a 34-year-old YouTuber and private contractor, said his lack of understanding of the costs of higher education influenced his decision to take out student loans. He said he accumulated $270,000 in debt, defaulted on two loans, and struggled financially. “I would scrub toilets for money. I couldn’t afford a bed, so I slept on my living room floor,” said Goudy, who attended Ohio University. “I struggled a lot, and I wasn’t just at a disadvantage because of my loans, but because of my financial standing.” He said that he wishes somebody would have told him of the potential consequences of taking out loans. But he was always told to “stay in school and not worry about it.”
Derrick Cooper, the leader of the LA City Wildcats, a youth organization that works with kids from the most vulnerable neighborhoods in Los Angeles, dealt with student loans as a father of two college graduates and as a coach to underprivileged students. “It’s a very downhill experience because most of them are just not knowledgeable,” he said. “Some are just intimidated about how they would maintain a living without having to pay for loans. A few make it and I’m proud of them, but most don’t because they can’t.”
This nationwide student loan debt crisis became a prevalent issue in the 2020 presidential primaries. Candidates discussed viable solutions. The nation’s students have to decide whether or not to go to college—a decision that could potentially alter how they pursue their academic careers. The most vulnerable students, however, are inherently left with fewer options. “I always had a plan to go to grad school,” Goudy said. “But because I had to start repaying my loans, I had to start working right away.”
In March, President Trump signed the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act response to the pandemic, which gave federal student loan borrowers a forbearance and stopped interest loans until September 30, which in August was extended to December 31.
Some experts believe measures like these are beneficial in the short term but insufficient long-term solutions to the student loan debt crisis. The CARES Act only applies to federal loans. This means that students who have Perkins and privately held Federal Family Education Loans still need to make payments, said Del Pilar. “This only effectively delays payments and does nothing to decrease student loan debt,” he said.
Although the nation’s capital is home to some of the wealthiest and most powerful individuals in the nation, it has also become the epicenter of economic disparities, drastically impacting students from underprivileged backgrounds. This is the unfortunate reality for underprivileged students across the United States—debt holders just hope that this won’t be overlooked forever. “This cycle of debt worries me,” Moraga said. “It’s another way the system works against minorities and people of color, and I don’t think it’s fair.”