Demos Event: A Discussion of Student Debt and the Communities Most Impacted

By Angel Flores, NASFAA Policy Intern 

A panel of Higher Education experts convened on Tuesday at the U.S. Capitol Visitor Center for an event entitled “The Student Debt Divide: The Racial and Class Bias Behind the ‘New Normal’ of Student Borrowing.” Hosted by Demos, the event focused on the concern over increasing student debt and the long-term implications it has on students’ families, the economy, and the future of higher education. 

Speakers included: 

  • Deborah Santiago, co-founder, chief operating officer and vice president for policy, Excelencia in Education
  • Mark Huelsman, senior policy analyst, Demos
  • Jennifer Wang, policy director, Young Invincibles
  • Sara Goldrick-Rab, founding director of the Wisconsin HOPE Lab, and professor of educational policy studies and sociology, University of Wisconsin-Madison

Rep. Mark Pocan (D-WI) kicked off the event by acknowledging the legislative proposals to alleviate student debt through refinancing of students loans do not address the core issue. Instead, Pocan suggested that attention should be placed on increasing financial support from states and institutions as well as maintaining funds for the Federal Work-Study Program.

The discussion that followed centered on financial barriers that interfere with the nation’s commitment to provide access to postsecondary education. Debt is not the problem, but rather a result of the underlying problem of the ever-increasing sticker price of college, Goldrick-Rab argued. “I believe that we’re in a situation where paying the price of attending college has changed what it means to go to college. It’s changing who attends college, it changes the mix of where people go, it changes the actual experience, and it changes the payoff,” she said.

“We have a substantial proportion of our student population who has to borrow just to get in the door of higher education,” Huelsman added. “Those students are predominantly low-income and students of color, and with that, we’re seeing a surge in the amount of students who are dropping out with debt.”

Santiago, who researches the affordability and attainment of the nation’s Hispanic student population, added that for many Latino families, the inevitable reality of college debt that comes with a college education greatly hinders that population’s decision to not only enroll in college, but also complete their college degree. She noted she partially attributes this “debt averse” behavior to the norms and values of the Hispanic culture. In the big picture, this can be especially problematic and quite possibly pose a severe threat to the future of higher education for Hispanic students if they feel that pursuing a college degree is not worth having to bear the financial burden of college debt for the majority of their lives.

The event concluded with a Q&A session where one student asked each member of the panel to give their strongest recommendation on what fundamental change can be made to transform college affordability. In response, Santiago said, “I think we need to hold states and their dollars accountable for serving the people in their states, and I don’t think we’re currently doing that.” 

Goldrick-Rab added that the Federal Work-Study Program must continue to be funded and ideally would see funding increases. The program plays a critical role in not only helping students finance their college education, but also in increasing their chances of staying in school because it allows students to develop relationships, remain engaged, and play an active role on their campuses, said said. 

Despite the varying recommendations from the panel, collectively, each member agreed poor economic circumstances should not be the sole determinant in whether or not a student decides to pursue a college education and that a family’s inability to finance a college education should not condemn them to a lifetime of debt.  


Publication Date: 6/17/2015

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