I never doubted I’d go to college one day. I wouldn’t call it a dream so much as a duty.
I had gotten accepted into my top choice: a private, picturesque university in upstate New York. Still, my mom couldn’t afford the tens of thousands in tuition fees. She wanted to try—for me—but I knew better. She was already losing our childhood home. She didn’t need this burden.
Instead, I settled for a public state school and asked my estranged father for some help. I graduated with about $25,000 in debt thanks to scholarships, government aid, and my dad’s modest assistance. That’s a bit below average for U.S. undergraduates. Over the last two years, however, I haven’t had to worry about that debt. The federal government paused student loan payments due to COVID-19.
Why am I sharing all this in my environmental and climate justice newsletter? Well, I’m one of the lucky ones. Yes, me: a first-generation Latina. My college ambitions weren’t hindered by the loneliness of a complicated admissions process. My mother supported me, always. My father said yes. And my hard work landed me a full-time job right after graduation.
That’s not the case for others—certainly not for other children of immigrants trying to clamber their way out of generational poverty. And certainly not for many people of color in the climate and environmental space. No one chooses to save the world because it pays well. (It doesn’t.)
Welcome to The Frontline, where we’re getting real about student debt. I’m Yessenia Funes, climate director of Atmos. America’s student debt crisis—and the cost of college, more generally—is a matter of climate justice. President Joe Biden promised voters student loan forgiveness, but it has yet to happen. What could such an action mean to the frontline communities already feeling climate impacts? How could free (or at least affordable) higher education pave career paths for young people eager to become climate scientists or environmental lawyers? Where is their right to a future?
Before Ayana Elizabeth Johnson became a renowned marine biologist and leading climate voice, she was just another kid in college. Johnson was lucky enough to graduate with about $10,000 in student debt, but she wonders if she would’ve made different career choices if she had graduated owing more.
“I often think of how many others, who weren’t as lucky as me, are unable to contribute their full ingenuity and time to climate solutions because they are fettered by debt—especially those who may be the first in their family to have a chance to go college and, with that, may bear the expectation of providing for their families or otherwise meeting societal expectations of success,” she wrote in an email. “To put it plainly, I think student loan debt holds us back from more effectively and speedily addressing the climate crisis.”
The points Johnson makes are but a thread in the connections woven between climate change and student debt. Student debt can, indeed, limit the career opportunities for individuals upon graduation. It can also discourage youth from pursuing college at all. A 2021 survey found that fewer high schoolers were considering college due to the rising cost. Meanwhile, those already in debt are unable to spend that money to build emergency funds, move into pollution-free areas, and recover post-disaster. Even universities are caught up in this web. As they struggle with enrollment, they instead turn to private funders—like the fossil fuel industry.
“The student debt crisis and the fossil fuel industry capture of higher education share a common root cause: an increasingly privatized education system,” said Jake Lowe, a student organizer at George Washington University trying to keep oil and gas dollars off his campus.
“One of the many reasons why the climate and environmental space lacks diversity is the financial barriers to college.”
The growing costs of higher education don’t affect everyone the same, either. Black students, for instance, had to borrow more money in 2020 than in previous years to attend college. Latine and Native American students also took out more student loans or struggled to remain in school at all due to financial obligations compared to white peers. That’s because their households weren’t wealthy enough to foot the cost themselves.
“One of the many reasons why the climate and environmental space lacks diversity is the financial barriers to college,” said T.J. Osborne, a masters student at Johns Hopkins University studying climate change policy and who has debt. “Breaking this cycle starts by making college more affordable.”
Let me remind you that slavery, incarceration, segregation, violence, and modern colonialism have contributed to the oppression Black, Indigenous, and other communities of color continue to face. The systemic assault on their well-being has also made these communities more vulnerable to the climate crisis. We need their voices to find solutions.
“Alleviating debts will help those people who are mostly people of color and women to address the harms that they suffer [from climate change],” said Caitlin Zaloom, a professor of social and cultural analysis at New York University.
Zaloom has written about what she calls “a right to the future,” which encapsulates the grim reality many young people face as climate change bears down on them and opportunities increasingly feel out of reach. Where is their right to a future? Where is their access to the American dream that was possible just a few generations ago? Instead, the young people of today must confront a future where their planet is on fire, where they must pay thousands for an education that can’t guarantee them a job, where politicians make promises they don’t keep.
“A lot of people are worried more about the end of the month than the end of the world.”
President Biden’s campaign promise to forgive $10,000 in student debt for all borrowers is back in the news as outlets report he will take action soon, yet the public is still waiting. The youth, in particular, are sick of waiting. They didn’t create climate change. They were told college was the answer to the middle-class, yet it’s becoming more expensive. That’s another way climate change relates to the student debt crisis, said Amber Ruther, the communications and research manager for the Alliance for a Green Economy, which is focused on clean energy in New York. “They’re both an issue of generational justice,” she said.
How can we expect those already saddled with debt to focus on climate change? Especially if they’re juggling medical debt, credit card debt, and utility debt alongside their student loans. Electricity bills in some states are up by about 15% compared to last year as utilities place increased cost burdens onto customers. “A lot of people are worried more about the end of the month than the end of the world,” Ruther said.
Money shouldn’t be a barrier to engaging in climate change. How much wealth a family holds shouldn’t determine their ability to send kids to college—and it shouldn’t force them into decades of debt. We need everyone in this fight. And as the climate crisis begins to affect all our lives, individuals don’t need another bill to worry about—not when wildfire smoke makes them sick or a hurricane destroys their home.
The people need financial security. And the youth need access to affordable higher education. Both are key to achieving climate justice. We can’t control the floods or the fires, but we can control the support we offer one another. We must demand more from the people we’ve elected—especially when they have yet to make due on their promises.