The Great Recession officially ended during the summer of 2009, but for Millennials in higher education the economic malaise persists and continues to grow. The current national student loan debt stands at $1.3 trillion, increasing by $2,853.88 every second. A considerable uptick in mainstream media coverage would seem imminent with this threat to the state of the union, however, in a recent study published by Media Matters for America, college affordability and student debt airtime was next to nothing. MSNBC, CNN, and Fox News combined only dedicated an alarming 2 hours and 22 minutes to the baneful crisis during the year of evening cable news coverage studied.
And when there was coverage, according to Media Matters’ analysis these outlets chose to focus its coverage on older white males. The analysis found that a majority of guests were middle-aged males (58 percent) and white (73 percent), while more than one-third of the student debt held in this country is by Millennials—the most racially diverse generation in history. Of the guests whose ages were on public record, over three-quarters of them were aged 35 or over with 40 percent of them 51 or older. Amongst the total 127 guests across the networks that took part in panels or discussions based on college affordability, eight of them were identified as current students, and only three weighed in on their own current or recent experiences as student loan borrowers. The present day struggles of a college student in the U.S. are being voiced by outsiders with unrelated experiences.
Though Media Matters found that media coverage centered largely on the voices of older white men, research shows that women, people of color, LGBTQ Americans, and formerly incarcerated people—all groups that have larger rungs to climb on the ladder of economic mobility—are the ones disproportionately affected by student debt. Fifty-three percent of women, for instance, have a high student loan debt burden compared to 39 percent of men. Compounding this fact, women make just 82 cents per dollar that a man makes, making it even harder for them to pay back their loans. Communities of color, particularly zip codes with high African American and Latino populations, experience disproportionately high student loan delinquency rates. Moreover, middle-income minority families are found to default the most on these loans, demonstrating systemic barriers in accessing credit. The LGBTQ community, meanwhile, faces higher poverty and unemployment rates and LGBTQ people of color and transgender Americans are especially likely to live in poverty–but many states and municipalities still lack explicit laws protecting LGBTQ individuals from discrimination in employment on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity, and gender expression. With higher poverty rates and lower levels of protections, LGBTQ Americans may also find it harder to pay back their loans. Finally, formerly incarcerated individuals are ineligible for federal financial aid and endure unemployment rates five to 20 points higher than their peers. Though Millennials are working in a more productive economy and are the most educated generation in history, these mounting barriers have thwarted their ability to get ahead.
Though there are multiple drivers of the student debt crisis, state disinvestment in higher education is one major cause. According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, nationwide state investment in higher education is down an average of $1,598 (18 percent) since the recession and only four states–Montana, North Dakota, Wisconsin, and Wyoming have increased their per-student funding to the pre-Recession levels. Even as the country continues to see consistent job growth and wage increases, many Americans still can’t keep up with the 1,1120 percent increase in the costs of college since the Carter administration.
University of California, Santa Barbara student Joel Ruiz told Generation Progress about his experiences working trying to pay for the cost of college: “I worked over 96 hours the past two weeks as a full-time student and I still cannot afford my education without taking out loans.” This combination of increasing costs and decreasing state investment has created the perfect backdrop for the student debt crisis, and today’s young scholars are no longer able to work their way through college like past generations.
Chiante Neshay Lymon, a third-year campus leader at Western Michigan University, has had to take out over $10,000 in student loans to finance her education, “I personally just lobbied on behalf of students over the summer in Washington D.C. with the United States Student Association (USSA),” Lymon told Generation Progress “[Congress] hear[s] us and say[s] they understand but they will never understand because they are not a student at this current time.” She pointed to financial aid packages not growing with soaring college expenses. The maximum Pell Grant award (federally funded financial aid for low-income students) covered approximately 80 percent of the cost attending a four-year public college over 30 years ago. Currently, the maximum Pell Grant award covers about 33 percent of those costs.
A September 2016 poll conducted by Public Policy Polling on behalf of Generation Progress found higher education and student debt to dominate Millennial policy priorities. Seventy-eight percent of respondents, all of whom were registered voters between the ages of 18 and 35, said they’d be more likely to support a candidate who supports free public college for families earning less than $125,000 per year. Seventy-four percent were more likely to support a candidate who supported free community college, and 71 percent said the same for student loan refinancing (student loan borrowers are currently unable to refinance their loans for lower rates, unlike most other kinds of loans) Ruiz, the student who regularly works overtime hours each week to pay for his education, encapsulated how his legislators’ inaction on student debt has disillusioned his view of politics, more generally: “Even when politicians do come onto our campus to talk about how they will be champions for higher education reform, students sense the disingenuity… They tell us what we want to hear, try and get the votes they need, and do nothing to fix these problems once in office.”
If this past election is any indication, student debt will continue to be a major issue for young voters: Millennials were the only generation to vote for Hillary Clinton, who had a robust student debt plan, over Donald Trump, who provided limited insight into how he would tackle the crisis. And young Americans, who are consistently turning away from traditional news sources like cable news, will continue to eschew media sources that under-cover and mis-cover the issues that matter to them. As California State University at Fullerton graduate student and student loan borrower Ashish Pamula told Generation Progress, “Mass news media can’t help fix any of these grievances without first having an open and honest discussion with the people they affect. The problem is they’re not.”
Pamula paused, then added: “It feels like they never have.”