Drowning in student loans and rising tides

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I never doubted that I would go to university one day. I wouldn’t call it a dream so much as a duty.

I had been accepted into my first choice: a private, scenic college in upstate New York. Yet my mother couldn’t afford the tens of thousands of tuition fees. She wanted to try—for me– but I knew better. She was already losing our childhood home. She didn’t need this burden.

Instead, I settled into a public state school and asked my ex-dad for help. I graduated with about $25,000 in debt thanks to scholarships, government aid, and some modest help from my dad. It’s a bit below medium for American students. For the past two years, however, I haven’t had to worry about this debt. The federal government has suspended student loan payments due to COVID-19[feminine].

Why am I sharing all of this in my Environment and Climate Justice newsletter? Well, I’m one of the lucky ones. Yes, me: a first-generation Latina. My college ambitions were not hindered by the loneliness of a complicated admissions process. My mother supported me, always. My father said yes. And my hard work got me a full time job right after graduation.

This is not the case for others, certainly not for other immigrant children trying to climb out of generational poverty. And certainly not for many people of color in the climate and environmental space. No one chooses to save the world because it pays off. (This is not the case.)

welcome to The front line, where we become aware of student debt. I am Yessenia Funes, climate director of atmosphere. The student debt crisis in the United States — and the cost of college education, more generally — is about climate justice. President Joe Biden promised the voter student loan waiver, but that hasn’t happened yet. What could such action mean for frontline communities already feeling climate impacts? How could free (or at least affordable) higher education open up career prospects for young people wishing to become climatologists or environmental lawyers? Where is their right to a future?

Before Ayana Elizabeth Johnson became a renowned marine biologist and a leading voice on climate, she was just another kid in college. Johnson was lucky enough to graduate with student debt of around $10,000, but she wonders if she would have made different career choices had she graduated with more money.

“I often think of the number of other people, who haven’t been as lucky as me, who are unable to devote all their ingenuity and time to climate solutions because they are shackled by debt, especially those who may be the first in their families to have a chance to go to college and with that can expect to support their families or meet society’s expectations of success,” said she wrote in an email, “To put it plainly, I believe student loan debt is preventing us from dealing more effectively and quickly with the climate crisis.”

Johnson’s points are just one thread in the links between climate change and student debt. Student debt can, in fact, limit individuals’ career opportunities after graduation. It can also discourage young people from pursuing a college education. A 2021 survey found that fewer high school students were considering college due to rising costs. Meanwhile, those who are already in debt cannot spend that money on building up emergency funds, moving to pollution-free areas and recovering after the disaster. Even universities are caught up in this network. While they find it difficult to register, they turn instead to private funders— like the fossil fuel industry.

“The student debt crisis and the fossil fuel industry’s capture of higher education share a common root cause: an increasingly privatized education system,” said Jake Lowe, a student organizer at the George Washington University trying to keep oil and gas dollars off its campus.

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