One of President Biden’s first acts in office was to request the Department of Education to extend the pause on student loan payments through September. Many are urging Biden to go further by issuing an executive order canceling $50,000 from all student loan borrowers’ debt. The Biden administration has proposed several other initiatives to make higher education more affordable, including forgiving up to $10,000 in student debt and providing free undergraduate education to anyone whose family earns less than $125,000 per year.
Higher education has the power to move individuals from poverty to self-sufficiency. According to a 2019 College Board study, students who participate in some college-level classes are less likely to need government assistance than those with only a high school degree. Study after study shows that students who complete some courses after high school can increase their earning potential. In fact, these earnings increase with the level of studies completed. We must do whatever we can to support students on their higher education journey so they can reach their full potential.
Yet the prospect of escaping poverty can be stifled if students take out education loans. Loan repayments can be a significant financial burden that affects students and their families for years. If students borrow but don’t complete their degree, they could dig themselves a larger financial hole with very little chance of climbing out. Thirty percent of students with less than an associate’s degree are behind in paying back their loans compared with 11 percent of those with a bachelor’s degree who struggle making their student loan payments. Students most likely to default are those who take out the least amount of money, and students with the least education are most behind in payments.
Should they default, the stakes are high. A default stays on a person’s credit report for seven years, reducing their chances of leasing an apartment, taking out other loans, buying a car, or securing employment.
Students of color and low-income students borrow more for the same degree, are more likely to borrow to complete an associate’s degree, and are more likely to enroll in a higher-priced for-profit college. Government statistics have shown that first-generation college students and students of color are more likely to be behind on their student loan payments than white students.
Any plan the Biden administration adopts would greatly enhance educational opportunities for community college students, since those who would benefit most from higher education are also most likely to take out loans that put their financial future at risk. However, the government forgiving loans or offering free tuition aren’t the only options to consider. Students and their families should consider these additional steps to make higher education more affordable:
▪ Investigate available programs and scholarships. Seek out merit- and need-based scholarships and programs. Boston’s Tuition-Free Community College Plan offers free tuition at RCC and five other schools for financially eligible Boston Public School graduates. The Commonwealth Commitment guarantees students who complete their associate degrees at a community college admission into one of the state colleges or UMass at a lower tuition rate. Read the requirements carefully — for example, the Tuition-Free Community College program requires students to have received their high school credential within the past 12 months.
▪ Start at a community college. Since the pandemic started, many students are considering attending community college for the first two years, then transferring. At Roxbury Community College, we make sure the credits students earn are transferable to other schools.
▪ Enroll part-time to keep costs down. Many schools work with students to allow them to pursue a degree while working, such as offering asynchronous classes that can be taken at any time.
▪ Support student-borrower bill of rights initiatives. Activists across the country including Boston are pushing for both federal and state initiatives to protect college students from unlawful collection practices that can cripple their financial future.
The Biden-Harris administration, the Baker administration, and outgoing Mayor Martin J. Walsh of Boston are to be commended for their efforts to make affordable, quality higher education a possibility for all. If local, state, and federal officials continue to prioritize affordable higher education, our country will make great strides in eliminating the systemic barriers to success.
Valerie Roberson is president of Roxbury Community College.