Everyone knows that the student loan debt crisis has gotten out of control in this country but not many people are aware of the impact this problem has on the most vulnerable population in our society.
Foster youth often have to overcome significant obstacles just to function in society, let alone pursue a higher education. Many grew up in poverty even before abuse or neglect impacted them, and bureaucratic bungling began over placing them in a stable home.
I am proud to say that I’m among the less than 9 percent of former foster youth to have graduated college. This past May marked the 10th anniversary of my graduation from Mills College, where I finished at the top of my class and served as commencement speaker. It was one of the proudest and most unexpected moments of my life.
I can’t recall much about the speech, except for the concluding line that still rings in my head verbatim, “I don’t know what your college degree means to you, but to me, mine is a physical reminder of all the hardships I have conquered.” Indeed, it was and remains so to this day as I spent most of my teen years as a ward of the state in the foster care system. However, today, after a decade, my accomplishment has taken on a whole new meaning. It is the sole cause of what is and will continue to be a lifelong financial hardship.
In my case, there was little financial assistance available. I had to take out a lot of loans while working several part-time jobs in order to graduate on time. The loans took the place of all the financial help and programs that are around today. I want to say that my loans led to high-paying jobs, but they didn’t.
I am now 36. Based on income, at the rate I’m currently paying, I’ll be in debt for at least another 10 to 20 years. I thought college was supposed to be a gateway into a better life. So far, my college education has instead had a crippling effect financially.
It is worth noting that many graduates who have parents are also generally experiencing the albatross of debt. What separates foster care alumni from the rest of the population is that many of us never had a stable family structure that provided healthy modeling, guidance or a strong foundation on how to live our life and handle our money. We instead have been left to our own devices from the very moment we aged out of the system at 18, if not before.
I understand that not all parents can afford to fully fund their children’s education, but many support their kids by assisting them with living expenses or letting them move back home after graduation. Without having to assume these expenses, these graduates can pay down their student loans more quickly. Foster alumni do not have this option. We do not have families either able or willing to care for us before, during or after college.
Being in foster care means that the government is your parent. The federal and state governments are in charge of taking care of foster children until they age out. Once we do, we are all alone without any safety nets in place. Not only that, it is my former parent, the government, who owns all of my student loans and has made my life difficult by being so very merciless in its collection efforts.
The irony is in giving foster alumni these student loans. The government supposedly is encouraging us to move beyond our troubled childhoods but that encouragement eventually evolves into nothing but a double-edged sword.
What makes this tragic is that so few of us have the fortitude and resilience to actually finish and graduate college. The few who do, typically give up. Implementing student loan debt forgiveness for foster alumni would incentivize better outcomes and fulfill the promise that going to college can lead to better lives in our adulthood than what we experienced as children.
Thankfully, there’s current legislation on student loan forgiveness, but it’s only for upcoming generations. This is simply unacceptable. There needs to be retroactive action for those already in debt who have made good faith efforts in paying down loans for the past 10, 20 and 30 years or since student loan debt became a national dilemma.
Critics will argue that discharging loans will lead to frivolous spending, which is a valid concern and why certain safeguards should be put into place. But what we have now is frivolous lending by a predatory and irresponsible government that is saddling its own children with a burden no young adult starting out in life should face.