Growing up, I did exactly what was expected of me. I worked hard through high school and was the first in my family to graduate from college, thanks to the federal Pell Grant, an academic scholarship and work-study program.
Despite that, I still walked away with massive student loans. I don’t regret my choice because my education is the one thing no one can take away from me. But, like too many of my friends, I am now buried in student debt.
By the time I pay off my loans, I’ll be in my 50s. And like many of my peers, I’m thinking differently about major life decisions, like buying a home or car or having kids, because I have too much student debt to pay off first.
My story isn’t unique. More and more, skyrocketing college costs are forcing students to take on crippling debt in order to get the education they need. Since the early 1980s, tuition and fees have increased 538 percent—that’s almost twice as fast as healthcare costs. Over two-thirds of all college students currently borrow in order to finance their education. Even so, I was shocked to learn that Americans now owe more than $1 trillion on student loans.
Far too many hardworking students are being priced out of higher education. College should be about creating opportunity, not debt. The time to make college affordable is long past due.
Higher education is critical to ensuring a bright future. Not having at least a bachelor’s degree costs the average high school graduate about $1 million in lost lifetime earnings. But every year, more than 100,000 college-qualified, low-income students don’t enroll at all, citing cost as a major barrier.
Right now, the conversation about our nation’s student debt crisis is being dominated by policymakers, researchers and college administrators—which means that it’s more about dollars and numbers than real-world implications for real-life students and their families. It’s time for this conversation to be driven by the individuals who are most directly impacted: current and aspiring college students and recent graduates.
That’s why I got involved with I AM NOT A LOAN , a new national campaign to raise the voices of young people who are fed up with soaring college costs and student debt.
As a first step, I AM NOT A LOAN is calling on colleges across the country to pledge to reduce student debt. The leaders of many of these institutions already acknowledge that college costs are growing at an unsustainable rate, but have yet to take needed action to solve the problem.
No two colleges are the same and no two solutions will be identical, but every one of them must do their part to make higher education affordable and ensure that a college degree is within financial reach for their students.
Without my education, I don’t know where I’d be. And despite my best efforts to repay them, my student loans will follow me for decades. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Through I AM NOT A LOAN, students are standing up for college affordability. And it’s time for action to reduce student debt.
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Iris Maria Chávez is assistant field director for The Education Trust‚ an organization that promotes high academic achievement for all students at all levels—pre-kindergarten through college. TakePart.com