Student Loans and the False Advertising of Upward Mobility

University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) students Andrea Flores (2nd R) and Kendall Brown (R) and other UCLA students and supporters demonstrate outside the UC Board of Regents meeting where members voted to approve a 32 percent tuition hike next year on November 19, 2009 in Los Angeles, California.  (David McNew/Getty Images)

Student loans are predatory by nature. You can’t tell me otherwise. But, see, the thing is... I can’t prove it.

Last month, when billionaire investor Robert Smith pledged to pay off the student loans of the entire 2019 graduating class of Morehouse, it resurfaced all of these thoughts I've been harboring since 2006, when I got my acceptance letter to Howard University.

When they told me how much it’d cost to attend classes at the HBCU mecca, I was like: What bruh? I need money to get an education? But I need an education to get money?

On one hand, this supposed ticket toward upward mobility and financial freedom came with a financial burden that I likely wouldn't be able to resolve in my lifetime. And on the other hand, having loans for life and not being able to get ahead or buy a house is a lot better than not being able to make a living at all—or even losing your life because of where you live.

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I got that acceptance letter the first week of January in 2006. Later that month, an old schoolmate and good friend, Willie Clay, was one of two people murdered when a number of people were hit with bullets on the top of the hill on East 28th Street in East Oakland. It was a place where we'd often hang out together. Willie was one of 148 people killed in Oakland that year, the second-highest homicide tally on record in the Town.

I always wonder: if I hadn't left Oakland that year, where would I have been?

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I think about the California Endowment's report on how a person's zip code impacts their life expectancy. And I juxtapose that with the map of where people who've defaulted on their student loans live. There's a lot of overlap; lots of people trying to get out of the hood, but falling deeper into debt.

Those hard numbers gave context to my experience. Of my friends who stayed, the majority had traumatic experiences of some sort: shot or shot at, incarcerated or fathering a child before they were prepared to do so.

Meanwhile, I was in classrooms with a bunch of kids who had generational wealth and family legacies to lean on. I mean, don't get it wrong, there were some kids from some pretty rough backgrounds too. But Howard has a very deep representation from the black middle class. I soon learned: just 'cause you're black, like me, doesn't mean you're black like me.

Author Pendarvis Harshaw (center) with his mother Dolores Ransom (right) and aunt Denise Ransom (left).
Author Pendarvis Harshaw (center) with his mother Dolores Ransom (right) and aunt Denise Ransom (left). (Pendarvis Harshaw )

So, yeah, I took out the loan. And now, I have two degrees, countless friends, magical memories and debt larger than any dollar amount I’ve made in a single year's salary.

I feel played.

I feel like I shouldn’t have had to take out a loan to get an education. My education doesn't just benefit the larger society through my professional output and contribution to the economy. It was a survival mechanism—my way of navigating the bullshit that happens to 18-year-old black men in America.

Even more strongly, I feel like there shouldn’t be anyone out there profiting on the interest from that loan. My credit score drops every time I default, pushing me further away from buying a house. Meanwhile, companies are pulling in exorbitant amounts from my choice to go to college and pursue what they sold to me as the path to happiness and success.

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Yeah, that compounding interest on the loan. That’s the real insult.

So now, through Robert Smith’s donation and presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren’s efforts to erase student debt for all, we’re discussing getting rid of student loans.

I'm here for the convo. I recently talked to some folks in my life about it, like Dr. Aminah Cherry, a pediatrician. She felt much like I did about the Morehouse story: I’m glad ya’ll loans are paid off, what about mine?

I talked to my former roommate Keith, who didn’t graduate but still has loans to pay. He told me it’s OK if I never pay off my loans entirely, but just to stay out of default.

I listened to a podcast, Jay S. Fleischman’s Student Loan Show, the "Student Loan Repayment Strategies for Doctors" episode. I took a couple of notes, but the biggest thing was that most slices of the student loan pie are too big to digest in one sitting, or episode.

A New York City public service announcement about student loans.
A New York City public service announcement about student loans. (Robert Morse)

And I even jumped on the K. Weston Media podcast, with Paul Billingsley (who's also a Morehouse grad) and Russell Morse, author and journalist from San Francisco, currently residing in New York.

I told them my theory that educational loans were predatory, especially for people such as myself that used the opportunity as a tool of refuge. Russell reminded me that there are plenty of for-profit universities that are widely regarded as straight scams. There are also a bunch of vocational colleges with questionable practices, in that they tell people to invest in the classes, earn a degree and in the end: there are no jobs in the market, and there's no way to get your money back.

Hell, Russell said there are even signs around New York informing people about the predatory practices of certain colleges.

So am I that far off when I posit that this higher education thing is a scam? That the people loaning you the hope for financial freedom on consignment are conspirators in the operation? And the schools that bring these folks on campus and allow the students to be eaten alive are no better than the trade schools we look down upon?

I'd even venture to say that student loans and their compounding interest might be the best example of long-entrenched systemic racism in the United States. You give a certain set of people a financial headstart for hundreds of years, and then tell the others that to catch up, you have to take out loans from us—but we're going to charge you an arm and a leg!

This isn't just student loans, either. I'm talking about payday loans, bail bonds, and of course, bad mortgages specifically given to people of color.

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Man, if at the bare minimum we could just get rid of interest in student loans, I'd be happy. It just makes sense. Telling me I need college in order to get a well-paying job, only to find out 10 years after graduating that I'll need three well-paying jobs just to pay back the loan? That seems pretty predatory.

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