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Thanks to recent data from Generation Progress and the Washington Center for Equitable Growth, we now know the exact cities and neighborhoods where student loan borrowers are struggling the most. Tragically, but not to anyone’s surprise, the data shows delinquency disproportionately affects communities of color – so those most in need of student loans to help secure greater economic mobility are the ones most likely to be harmed by them.
There’s no question policymakers should use this information to improve the student loan program so that it reduces racial and economic inequality for future generations. But a more burning question is, how can we use this information to help improve the lives of struggling borrowers right now?
Here’s one idea: bring student loan counseling directly into the communities that need it most, because sometimes you have to bring the mountain to Mohammed. Financial Aid Nights, seminars held at high schools and community centers across the country to teach parents and students the ins and outs of applying for financial aid, are incredibly popular and effective. Online instruction is the norm these days, but nothing beats engaging with an audience face-to-face, where learners can ask questions in real-time.
So why not mimic the process with Student Loan Nights – instructive sessions on student loan repayment strategies, held in neighborhoods where student debt delinquency rates are high. Offer counseling to people at all ends of the student loan spectrum, from those just beginning payment to those who have fallen behind and need to get back on track. No passing judgment or laying blame; just unbiased advice from student loan experts.
Unfortunately, this type of grassroots approach is better suited to a nimble student loan program that has boots on the ground – not the bureaucratic system we have now where student loan borrowers are randomly assigned to a handful of national servicers, regardless of where they live. But there does still exist a network of state-based organizations and student loan guarantors, many of whom have both longstanding ties to college access groups based in the community and a wealth of experience in student loan minutiae. We shouldn’t let their expertise go to waste.
For example, here in Massachusetts, we at American Student Assistance continue to experiment with taking our service on the road and expanding our reach through community partnerships. With funding support, we could extend service to our most vulnerable student loan borrower populations statewide, from communities of color, to public housing residents, to veterans and undocumented students. We invite likeminded stakeholders throughout the Commonwealth, with a vested interest in a healthy state economy fueled by a college-educated workforce of willing and able consumers, to join us in the fight to end student loan struggles.
It seems to me what’s good for the student navigating the front-end of applying to college, would be equally as effective for the graduate navigating the back-end maze of repayment options.