by Hunter Callaway ’22 (he/ him)
My first exposure to financial aid at Davidson was during my senior year of high school when I found that my aid package made Davidson the most affordable college option. The Davidson Trust exists to “meet 100 percent of calculated financial need of accepted students” by grant or work study. Yet, Davidson students who receive federal loans shoulder an average debt of $18,218. The chasm between common narratives surrounding student loan debt and its reality is not unique to Davidson, however, it has stymied attempts to solve the crisis of student debt. By centering the most privileged recipients in our understanding of student debt relief, our discourse erases the average borrower and suppresses popular support for the far-reaching policies necessary to solve the student loan crisis.
The American Rescue Plan Act, recently signed by President Biden, extends stimulus payments and child tax credits to dependent students while also providing billions of dollars in funding for institutions of higher education. Half of the funding that schools receive must be used for emergency financial aid, although individual institutions have control over which students get funding. The question of “Who deserves relief?” takes a new form, as a way to obscure what is most important in this policy. Currently, according to a Trump-era policy that the Biden administration has not yet changed, students with DACA status cannot receive this emergency financial aid. While it is reasonable to prioritize students with the most financial need in this new funding, do not let the question of eligibility overshadow those excluded from relief payments.
It is imperative that Davidson use private funding to provide equal relief to students who do not meet the federal criteria for funding. Fortunately, the endowment of our college makes that possible. The reality for students at many other schools, though, is that ineligibility for federal funding makes the cost of college insurmountable. The narrative of who gets relief ‘undeservedly’, however, overshadows the government’s exclusion of DACA recipients. So long as hundreds of thousands are ineligible for these funds, arguments over how they should be disbursed only serve to erase those we should work to include. Losing sight of this helps those who argue for lower government spending and austerity in times of urgent need.
High-ranking Democrats’ attempts to pressure Biden to cancel up to $50,000 in student loan debt failed in large part due to the rhetoric that the most privileged students benefit unfairly from broad debt relief. Consider, though, that the wealthiest students are already the most likely to graduate without debt. Whether you are on track to graduate from Davidson with loans or not, take a step back and recognize the scale of the student loan debt crisis. American student borrowers are diverse in race, class, and origin; government relief to the most indebted will be an unprecedented win for any young person trying to find financial security.
If Davidson is not representative of the average person’s experience with higher education, then what are we missing? Note that the benefits of a college degree are inaccessible to those who take out loans to begin school without finishing their education. According to data from the College Board, 74 percent of those who do not complete college will spend five years locked in repayment plans without paying a single dollar of the principal — the amount borrowed initially — on their loans. This practice is modern debt peonage, particularly for those forced into lower-paying jobs solely to keep up with interest payments. While failing to graduate from Davidson is particularly catastrophic for a student loan borrower, our 93 percent graduation rate insulates much of our community from that reality for students across the country. However, there is much more to this divide than just a gap in graduation rates.
The student loan debt crisis weighs heaviest on people of color, particularly Black Americans. The financial burdens associated with student loans are deeply intertwined with the racial wealth gap, making expensive educational investments incredibly risky. In 2016, 33 percent of Black graduates had $40,000 or more in student debt, nearly twice the rate of white graduates. A loan forgiveness narrative that focuses on the potential gains of a wealthy, white student at an elite school erases the plight of many heavily indebted students. Forgiving that debt would represent one of the greatest racial wealth transfers in American history, yet those who argue against it frame the policy as a regressive benefit for the most privileged.
As students, our interests align with one another against a government seemingly uninterested in taking the steps necessary to support those most in need. When we forget this, it becomes difficult to focus on the overwhelming priority — to ease the financial load placed on millions of Americans solely for seeking an education. As the Davidson administration must provide sufficient private aid to our peers ineligible for federal funding, so too must Joe Biden extend the government’s support to DACA recipients and millions of other student loan borrowers. We have a responsibility as young people to hold those in power accountable. People across our country need relief now to have any hope of a life free from the burden of their debt. Will we let anxieties around our own privilege keep us from acting decisively to end this crisis? I sincerely hope not.