An Open Letter on Student Debt

Our students deserve better than the mess our lending policies have created, 73 scholars write.

February 25, 2020
 
 
Istockphoto.com/Tommy

As educators, we once believed that vocational training and college could serve the common good and that encouraging students to invest in it would benefit them, their families and their communities. Because of the way student loans are now financed in our country, however, the benefits we envisioned are vanishing. Students and their families owe more for their loans than the rest of us for either our credit card debts or our car loans. Something is amiss.

As states have reduced their contributions to postsecondary education by $9 billion over the last 10 years, ordinary families have been left to shoulder the burden, with dire results. Just over 10 percent of colleges have enough wealth to replace loans with grants for middle- and low-income families, with the highest levels of student borrowing occurring in the bottom 89 percent of institutions in terms of endowment wealth and with reductions in borrowing for those in the top 1 percent. For those students entering some of the for-profit colleges, they learned the hard way that the job-placement rates were sometimes inflated and that the return on investment was never going to materialize. Meanwhile, the cost of financing every dollar of these loans increased -- with the most disadvantaged students paying more but getting less.

Who could have imagined that the student loan crisis would widen the black-white wealth gap? Education was supposed to close it. Who could have foreseen couples delaying their decision to marry, or giving up on it altogether, because of their student loan debt? Who would have described a student loan in the same terms as a payday one, with hidden fees and no way out, in the days when student loans were manageable?

Our concerns are based on carefully conducted studies that we’re happy to share. And they are based on the lives of the students many of us teach. They deserve better than the mess our lending policies have created.

Our students have not changed. They still dream of a life of dignity and meaningful work. They still stay up late and sacrifice sleep in order to cross the finish line. And they struggle to repay loan burdens that we did not imagine some 20 or 30 years ago. Many of us who managed to work and pay our way through college could not do so now, even with more effort. To be sure, our students remain remarkable. Their detractors have missed the mark.

Before ruling out the possibility that a better future is possible, please take a look at the wide range of proposals out there to provide relief and reform for student borrowers. Debt cancellation can work, and it can take a variety of forms. (Thankfully, the Financial Security Program at the Aspen Institute has gathered a range of these options in one place, here.)

We have to decide that the future is worth it.

We, the undersigned, ask for other educators to join us (by signing here) in our push for a more just and prosperous future for those entrusted to our classrooms.

With urgency,

Frederick F. Wherry
Princeton University

Tressie McMillan Cottom
Virginia Commonwealth University

Darrick Hamilton
Ohio State University

Lillian Taiz
California Faculty Association, past president
California State University at Los Angeles (emerita)

Charlie Eaton
University of California, Merced

Anthony Abraham Jack
Harvard University

Fenaba Addo
University of Wisconsin at Madison

Jason Houle
Dartmouth College

L. Lacy Barnes
Madera Community College Center

Alondra Nelson
Institute for Advanced Study

Sayeedul Islam
Farmingdale State College

Brett Collins
University of California, Santa Barbara

Ruha Benjamin
Princeton University

Graham Spann
Craven Community College

Adam Goldstein
Princeton University

Michelle Bezanson
Chair of anthropology
Santa Clara University

Megan McIntyre
Sonoma State University

David de Céspedes
Brooklyn Ascend High School

Sarah Leavens
University of Pittsburgh

Sandy Grande
Connecticut College

Jennifer C. Lena
Columbia University

Anne Kane
University of Houston Downtown

Christina Dunbar-Hester
University of Southern California

Daniel Hirschman
Brown University

Bianca C. Williams
The Graduate Center, City University of New York

Van C. Tran
The Graduate Center, City University of New York

Daniel Krutka
University of North Texas

Michelle Weinberger
Northwestern University

Randa Serhan
American University

Stephen F. Ostertag
Tulane University

W. Carson Byrd
University of Michigan/University of Louisville

Sebastián G. Guzmán
Purchase College, SUNY

Nina Bandelj
University of California, Irvine

Anthony S. Alvarez
California State University at Fullerton

Paul-Brian McInerney
University of Illinois at Chicago

Victoria Reyes
University of California, Riverside

Michael Gibson-Light
University of Denver

Megan Kelly
Arrupe College of Loyola
University of Chicago

Alya Guseva
Boston University

Susan Dobscha
Bentley University

Linda Kaboolian
Harvard Chan School of Public Health

Heba Gowayed
Boston University

Rei Terada
University of California, Irvine

Madeline Louise Friend
Flagstaff Unified School District

Keith Brown
Saint Joseph's University

Karen Gregory
University of Edinburgh

Leonard Nevarez
Vassar College

Megan Bea
University of Wisconsin at Madison

Shea Swauger
University of Colorado at Denver

Jeffrey Himpele
Princeton University

Lilly Irani
University of California, San Diego

Julia Elyachar
Princeton University

Natasha Quadlin
Ohio State University

Lucas Bang
Harvey Mudd College

Akos Rona-Tas
University of California, San Diego

Daniel C. Hallin
University of California, San Diego

Richard Swedberg
Cornell University

Cynthia Buckley
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Lauren Williams
College for Creative Studies

Kim Philip Hansen
Mount St. Mary's University

Laura Hamilton
University of California, Merced

Amy Binder
University of California, San Diego

Anastasia C. Wilson
University of Massachusetts at Amherst

David Stark
University of California, Berkeley

Isaac William Martin
University of California, San Diego

Myra Marx Ferree
University of Wisconsin at Madison

Wesley Longhofer
Emory University

Jean Beaman
University of California, Santa Barbara

Philip V. McHarris
Yale University

Briana Mullen
University of California, Berkeley

Julia Elyachar
Princeton University

Sebastián G. Guzmán
Princeton University

Meghan Tobias Neely
Stanford University

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