TICAS 15th Anniversary: The Long View on Student Debt

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The Insitute of College Access and Success (TICAS) Celebrated their 15th anniversary by walking through their 15th annual report and a brief panel to discuss the past 15 years and the next 15 to come. The event was peppered with lawmakers giving good graces to TICAS and warning us of the future with mistakes from the past. Former Congressman Tom Harken noted the ongoing fight against predatory for-profit institutions, Congresswoman Barbara Lee noted how COVID has exacerbated existing inequalities in education, and Elizabeth Warren echoed all this while closing out with a call to action for free college as well as reinvestment in HBCUs.

The event includes a summary of TICAS’s annual report. Over the past 15 years, college debts have outpaced year to year inflation rates in all 50 states. Pennsylvania, notably, has the second-highest debt at an average of $39,027, doubling over the past 15 years. 25% of undergraduates missed payments, and this disproportionately affects black students (40% have missed payments). Since 2016, NPSAS data has shown a flattening in the curve. While this is true, and 2019 saw a slight decrease in average debt, COVID-19 has exposed to the broader public serious threats. From delays in completion and starting college to the digital divide and a lack of full recovery from the previous recession, students are struggling to access and complete college degrees. TICAS is looking for law and policymakers to invest in public colleges, to extend emergency relief, and to improve upon transparency with greater access to data.

The Panel highlighted the past 15 and future 15 years. For the past, panelists highlighted several key issues. Lauren Asher noted the creation of Income-Based Repayment (IBR) plans. Lande Ajose mentioned both state-provided grants as well as the exposure of non-tuition costs as a limiting factor. State provisions were countered by James Kavaal’s comment on overall state disinvestment from higher education without full recoveries from the past recession. Bob Shireman pointed to the creation of Grad Plus Loans with no limits fueling the no limit tuition price growth and the creation of Parent Plus Loans that cannot take advantage of IBR. Ajita Menon and Zakiya Smith Ellis surfaced the inequalities. Ms. Menon began with identifying the disproportionate effect on students of color and called for a hopeful plea to expand data collection for deeper insights that could guide building a more equitable system. Ms. Smith Ellis noted that student debt is now ubiquitous, not just affecting a niche group, and therefore has garnered bipartisan action.

The look-ahead was an equally bleak and hopeful mix. Ms. Asher called for increased accountability of institutions to avoid returning to old behaviors. Flip the script, colleges need to realize the risks they pose on students and not the opposite as they have in the past. Ms. Lande seconded the accountability through a need to address the opaqueness at which institutions operate, and they need to shift their definition of what constitutes a basic need in a post COVID world. Mr. Shireman poignantly said that colleges need to take into account students’ budgets for what is reasonable to charge. Ms. Menon noted that public and private institutions need to address filling gaps with equitable solutions before For-Profit colleges fill them with predatory ones. Ms. Smith Ellis adroitly said, “When White America catches a cold, Black America catches the flu…when White America catches the flu, Black America dies.” She noted the inverse affects of repayment for people, especially women, of color who are systematically not given access to higher-paid, work-from-home job opportunities. Mr. Kavaal closed out by saying that we are facing the consequences of maxing out in borrowing for the future rather than investing in the future. Additionally, we need to be clear that even with higher degrees, people of color still face workplace and hiring discrimination that makes jobs that will pay back college debt inaccessible.

You can watch the full event here.

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