The Invisible Burden: Addressing the Silence Around Student Debt

“As someone who has been on financial aid since high school and regularly fills out her own FAFSA documents, student debt is never too far from my mind,” said senior Isabel Valdelomar. But, student debt is rarely talked about on campus. Valdelomar continues, “I think most Tufts students have the luxury of ignorance, not because they are totally and purposefully unaware, but because they cannot understand the weight that student debt has on many low and average income students, who are the minority at Tufts.”

One in three Tufts students will take out a loan, 70 percent of which comes from federal loan and grant programs. All in all, the average student who receives any aid pays about $32,000 per year in total cost, and the typical student will graduate with $28,000 in student debt, with $17,500 of that coming from federal loans. Yet, on campus, the conversation around student debt is relatively nonexistent. “I feel like everyone is really passive about it and doesn’t talk about it… It’s kind of a difficult thing to talk about,” said an anonymous Tufts student. 

The total student debt in America has reached $1.7 trillion, more than auto loan and credit card debt combined. This crisis has been a hot button issue among presidential candidates, but it is quite difficult to comprehend the level and scope of the crisis. The average student borrower comes out of college with $30,000 in debt, and many graduates owe several times more than that. 

The story of our broken lending system begins in the 1960s. In the ‘60s and ‘70s, the government sought to make higher education accessible to middle and low-income families by guaranteeing private student loans and issuing grants to college students. These steps led to a dramatic increase in college admission levels and a flow of largely unregulated loans issued to students. This trend, coupled with a reduction in state spending on colleges, led to the crisis we observe today. Tuition costs rose steadily, as did the levels of unpaid debt. Students who expected to quickly pay off their loans once they entered the job market routinely struggled under the crushing burden of their debt. Now, student debt has become the defining issue for young people in America, with the intense debate surrounding how best to solve the problem dividing many within the Democratic party. 

While talking about student debt on campus is still avoided, some students are using the Democratic primary race to try to spur conversation. Tufts for Warren and Tufts for Bernie, two clubs formed at the beginning of the school year, cite the candidates’ student loan plans as key reasons why members have joined their clubs. 

Senator Warren’s extensive proposal to ease the burden of student loans has focused on forgiving up to $50,000 in debt for most students, while also guaranteeing free public college for all. Notably, Warren’s plan provides debt relief to households earning less than $250,000, resulting in about 42 million Americans eligible for debt forgiveness. Senator Warren also calls for a substantial increase in federal funding for colleges as part of her proposal, hoping to completely eliminate tuition costs at public institutions. However, at a private university such as Tufts, the potential impact of this policy is not so clear. While Warren does call for also forgiving loans towards private schools, her policy does not contain any specific measures to aid students currently attending private schools.

The comprehensive nature of Senator Warren’s proposal has been a key aspect in drawing support among the student body at Tufts. In an interview, Hannah Kahn, a senior and one of the co-presidents of Tufts for Warren, said, “[Warren’s] plans for quality and affordable education are what I think draws a lot of young people toward her.” Senator Warren, known for her detailed policy proposals across all issues, is hoping her vision for “big, structural change” will appeal to the younger, more diverse progressive wing of the party. And while Warren’s support on campus appears to remain strong, national polls show that young voters lean strongly towards Senator Sanders, who is also competing for the support of leftist and liberal voters. 

Senator Sanders’s plan calls for complete erasure of student debt while also dramatically increasing funding towards public colleges, particularly historically Black colleges and universities. This large scale debt forgiveness and funding increase would be paid for by implementing a .5 percent tax on all stock trades, as well as a tax on bond and derivative trades. Sanders’ plan intends to lower tuition costs, rather than supply federal loans. The impact on private institutions like Tufts would be smaller than public colleges. Sanders has proposed to cap the interest rate on federal loans at 1.88 percent; it is currently at 4.53 percent. Critics of Sanders’ plan question the feasibility of raising $1.7 trillion.

Sanders calls for a fundamental reversal in government policy towards higher education. Rabiya Ismail, one of the founders of Tufts for Bernie, explained, “The dynamics in Tufts for Bernie are basically anti-capitalist, pro-democratic socialist. Those ideals relate to cancelling all student debt because it means a blank slate for everyone.” 

Ismail urged her fellow Tufts students to consider the leftist ideology which underlies Sanders’s push to completely eliminate all outstanding debt: “This is a very liberal institution still, but I wouldn’t say it’s leftist, I would just say it’s liberal.” The key distinction between the two is that liberals support a regulated market economy, while leftists favor a command economy.

While students active in campus political organizations may be highly knowledgeable on the topic, the conversation on campus is minimal, if not nonexistent. An anonymous Tufts student commented, “I think that people don’t feel comfortable talking about their aid packages with people that don’t understand them… a minority of the campus receives aid and then typically it’s not a situation where you feel like you can be super clear or honest about it.” Valdelomar echoed this sentiment, noting that “it’s no secret that the Tufts student body is extremely wealthy.” The fact remains that Tufts students are overwhelmingly wealthy, with approximately one in five students coming from the top one percent of families, and half of the student body belonging to the top five percent. Furthermore, Tufts has the 10th highest median parent income amongst all colleges. Because Tufts’s student body consists of many families wealthy enough to benefit from conservative fiscal policies, student debt may be a particularly unpopular topic for discussion on this campus.

The anonymous student emphasized the importance of acknowledging how wealth affects the conversation on student debt, as well as the campus culture at large: “I think that we would benefit from having an active conversation and making it a priority to recognize our privilege because this is the perfect time to learn.” They also pointed to the appearance of students as an indicator of the difference in students’ experiences, saying, “a lot of people have $900 jackets when they’re walking around campus, and some people are getting them from the garbage bin at Goodwill.”

Statistics and public appearance aside, the attitude towards money within the Tufts student body is far from ubiquitous. “People have different relationships with money regardless of their actual access to money,” said the anonymous student. Every student has their own relationship to the money that supports their education whether that money comes from loans or from their family. “I have a peer who is not on any financial aid but every single week she is stressed about spending money on groceries,” said the anonymous student. Some students may not qualify for aid despite substantial financial insecurity. These hidden disparities add a tension and stress similar to that of students taking loans, yet simultaneously isolate these students from both the affluent and those on aid. 

“I don’t think that anybody’s actively trying to do anything wrong,” said the anonymous student, implying that the silence does not stem from a place of cruelty. The silence comes from a place of ease—the same place of ease that makes financial inequality across America a taboo subject. As the student debt crisis takes center stage on the national level, Tufts’s history of silence will be tested.