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By Imani West
August 18, 2021
Credit : Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

As a current college student, I am acutely aware of the many costs associated with getting an education. One of the first things most students and their families consider when weighing their college options is price, including how much they’re being offered in financial aid and scholarships. I live in a single parent household, and am incredibly lucky that my mother has taken on extra jobs and summer work (like the superwoman she is) just so that she could afford to send me to the schools of my choice. 

Over the past few years though, the intensification of extreme weather has been a source of further financial stress for me and my family. We have had to sacrifice some of the money that was meant for my tuition to repair damages to my home caused by thunderstorms, hurricanes, and tornadoes. At times, I have lost power, lost connection to my classes, have not been able to turn in my assignments on time, have been unable to contact my professors, lost my ability to take my online exams—the list goes on. This has been especially challenging during COVID-19 pandemic, when my classes have shifted online, and my education now depends on reliable electricity and a safe home environment.

Determining effective solutions to large-scale problems like the climate crisis or college affordability and student debt requires understanding how different issues connect and overlap with one another. The issues facing our country don’t exist in siloes, and being impacted by one problem can lead to additional struggles with other—even seemingly unrelated—problems. It is important for policymakers to take an intersectional approach when creating policy because, oftentimes, it isn’t possible to solve one issue without addressing the implications of another. 

Climate change and student debt are two issues that are often not seen as related, but looking at the ways that these issues disproportionately impact the same people and communities can provide insight into the types of solutions that are needed to solve both of them. In order to achieve environmental justice, policymakers must consider that the communities most impacted by the climate crisis are often the same communities that disproportionately struggle with student debt. 

For example, climate change and student debt both disproportionately impact communities of color. When severe weather events occur, air pollution increases, or water is polluted, communities of color, under-resourced communities, and marginalized people are impacted the most. These same communities also are burdened with higher levels of student loan debt and more difficulties repaying that debt than their white counterparts. Black students are more likely to need to borrow, borrow more, and take longer to pay off their loans than white students. On average, Black college graduates owe an average of $25,000 more than their white peers. Four years after graduation, Black college graduates on average accumulate interest such that their balance owed increases by 12.5 percent, whereas white college graduates are likely to have already paid off some debt and have reduced their total balance owed during that same period of time. 

The increase of extreme weather events, such as dangerous heatwaves, freezing temperatures, flooding, and destructive storms, can all be directly linked to human-induced climate change—which means this problem is only getting worse. The average temperature in the United States has been continuously rising since 1901, with the last 30 years showing an increased rate of warming. Eight of the hottest years on record occurred within the last decade. 

The student debt crisis is likewise escalating. One in three young people have taken out loans to afford college, and students and their families collectively hold $1.7 trillion in student loan debt. These individuals and their families are attempting to do what is ultimately impossible for many, financing higher education while staying financially afloat through worsening floods, fires, and droughts. 

In order to end the cycle of climate change and the student debt crisis compounding to cause financial instability for generations of Americans, we need to demand that Congress pass economic recovery legislation with bold climate investments that prioritize the most impacted communities, cancels student debt, and makes college more affordable for students and their families. 

The same communities that have been deprived of the resources and infrastructure necessary to withstand the worst impacts of the climate crisis as a result of systemic racism are often also struggling to afford college for the same reason. President Biden’s Build Back Better agenda would give the country a better chance to build an economy that works for all, while investing in clean energy and infrastructure that protects our communities from pollution and worsening climate change. In addition to the Build Back Better agenda, the administration recently established the Justice 40 initiative, which ensures that 40 percent of all the federal government’s climate investments will go to disadvantaged and over-polluted communities. This initiative codifies environmental justice as a part of each federal agency’s mission.

To make good on President Biden’s commitments in the Build Back Better agenda and the Justice 40 initiative, Congress must fund federal programs that help disadvantaged families with the economic burdens of climate change-induced extreme weather. For example, the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) provides money to families who need assistance with their energy bills, which can spike during periods of extreme heat or cold; and the Weatherization Assistance Program (WAP) helps medium- and low-income households lower their energy bills by subsidizing energy efficiency technology for their homes. These programs can help people on the frontlines of climate change save money for other important life priorities, like education.

Multiple bills have been introduced in Congress with the aim of reducing or eliminating the cost of tuition and fees at public universities and community colleges, including the Debt-Free College Act, America’s College Promise, and the College for All Act. In addition, President Biden is still exploring his options for canceling some amount of student debt, a promise made during his campaign

Racial and economic injustice take many different forms in this country, and racist and unjust policies have resulted in people of color existing on the frontlines of both the climate and student debt crises. It is imperative that the government makes significant investments now to secure environmental and economic justice for all. Our futures, and our families’ futures are at stake.

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