By Aya Waller-Bey
Last winter, I gave a college admissions workshop at a popular local charter school. After a series of questions asking about students’ motivations for attending college, I administered a quiz to check their knowledge about the college application process. One of the final prompts was a true-or-false question that asked students whether student loans were unavoidable to attend college. The responses were a mixed bag. Some students enthusiastically proclaimed that loans were a part of the college-funding process, and others believed full-ride scholarships were bountiful.
With the Nov. 1 early action and early decision application deadlines behind us, parents, college counselors, and students alike look toward the financial aid process and the upcoming Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) application opening in December this year. Questions swarm about affordability and the return on investment for a four-year college degree. After having participated in hundreds of conversations about college admissions, I’ve learned that many people mistakenly believe that pursuing a college degree undoubtedly means they will be saddled with six-figure college debt.
College does not have to be a debt sentence. Take me, for example. When I applied to college some 13 years ago, I prioritized one key school feature: colleges that met 100 percent of demonstrated financial need. Colleges and universities that make this promise will offer financial aid to admitted students that covers the difference between the institution’s price tag and the family’s ability to pay. This especially was important since FAFSA determined that my estimated family contribution was $0.
When I received college decision letters from Georgetown, Wesleyan, Northwestern, and a few other highly selective institutions, I reviewed admissions letters, looking for the best financial aid packages, which included no student loans, deposit waivers, and little-to-no student contribution. My two top choices, Georgetown and Northwestern, met the task. In four short years, I graduated debt free from Georgetown University, one of the nation’s top colleges.
For those who intend to stay in the state, 10 public universities in Michigan offer guaranteed acceptance for students who earn a 3.0 or higher. Particularly, Michigan State University provides the Spartan Tuition Advantage, which is a program that covers the cost of full tuition for Michigan high school graduates who have a family income of $65,000 or less and qualify for federal Pell Grants. The University of Michigan has a similar policy with its Go Blue Guarantee. There’s also the last dollar scholarship, Detroit Promise, aimed to ensure Detroit residents have tuition-free post-secondary education. Together, these programs work to make a four-year degree more affordable and to reduce debt burdens.
It may surprise you that one-third of student debt holders have balances under $10,000, and another 20 percent owe between $10,000-$20,000. In fact, just seven percent of borrowers owe six figures, according to data published by The Washington Post. However, I would be remiss if I did not address racial disparities and the debt gap between Black and white borrowers. According to the Brookings Institute, Black graduates, on average, owe six percent more than they have borrowed, while white graduates owe 10 percent less than they have borrowed. One of the reasons for this is that proportionately Black students are enrolling in graduate programs higher than their white counterparts, and debt from graduate programs accounts for nearly half of the debt gap between Black and white borrowers, according to the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for African Americans.
There are ways to mitigate student loan debt. For starters, the Biden-Harris administration should cancel student loan debt, and public universities and community colleges should be free. But, while we wait for those fantastical acts, families should explore institutions that meet 100 percent of demonstrated financial need. There are also a handful of (primarily selective) colleges and universities with no loan policies. I also encourage families with college-bound students to, by grade 10, have a college list of 10-12 schools and the GPA and/or test scores required to be eligible for merit-based aid (grants and scholarships awarded by institutions because of academic performance) and institutional scholarships. These considerations are particularly helpful for low-income families and first-generation college students where saving for college isn’t always feasible.
Miseducation about college admissions, financial aid, and student loan debt has the potential to discourage talented young people from seeking out degrees and credentials that positively impact their life outcomes. Student loan debt is real, but so are opportunities to limit it.
Aya Waller-Bey completed her B.A. in Sociology with a Social Justice concentration and minor in African American studies at Georgetown and earned her MPhil in Education at the University of Cambridge in England. She also completed an M.A. in Sociology from the University of Michigan, where she’s currently a Ph. D. candidate studying trauma narrative in college essays. She has presented her research at local and national talks and symposiums, conducted storytelling workshops, and written op-eds for international publications.