The student debt crisis is real and young people can’t move the needle without equal access to the vote

It’s been a very difficult year for young Americans, from severe and ongoing disruptions to our learning and violence in schools to a nationwide mental health crisis. We have been constantly pulled in different directions by issues that we know will disproportionately affect our future, without having a place at the table in political debates on those issues.

Among our most pressing concerns is the worsening student debt crisis, in which 45 million Americans, including myself, now owe $1.7 trillion in loans.

As a first-generation black law student, I am incredibly proud and grateful to have the opportunity to continue my education. But after graduating from my institution in May, my joy and pride in this significant achievement was overshadowed by the impending student debt I graduated with.

Student debt in America is a serious crisis — a crisis that disproportionately hits young people, especially young people of color like myself, who are the most diverse generation our country has ever seen. Fortunately, these payments were suspended in March 2020 and recently extended through August, as it is clear that this debt threatens our ability to stay financially afloat amid the ongoing global pandemic.

Black borrowers hold more student loan debt than any other racial group. The widening wealth gap we know all too well will leave us behind. It is disturbing to know that this debt could mean the difference between saving enough to buy a house or supporting my family in the future.

But it’s been more than two years now, and young people like us are still appealing to the administration for a real permanent solution to this problem. Although more than 60% of voters support some degree of student loan relief, our regular payments have simply been delayed, for the sixth time.

It is understandable that some people are discouraged by elected officials who do not keep their election promises on issues like the cancellation of student debt. With the primary elections well under way and the midterm elections approaching, it is more urgent than ever for us to organize ourselves, not become discouraged. We must hold our elected officials accountable to the communities they serve and ensure they commit to plans this year that will help change the lives of young people like us. We can do this by participating in this year’s elections to vote for candidates who will meet our needs, building long-term leadership within our generation, and addressing issues from the top down of our ballots.

To make political change possible, we need strong access to voting rights and protections that help us move the needle on these issues. We need federal and state legislators to fully commit to protecting our voting rights and expanding access to the democratic process.

In 2020 and 2018, despite some of the toughest and most unique obstacles of any electoral bloc, young people across the country turned out in record numbers to vote – many of us largely due to debt. student and the racial wealth gap.

As a graduate, I know all too well the barriers that prevent us from voting as students. We commute more frequently than older Americans, are less likely to have driver’s licenses used for voter identification, and far less likely to be contacted directly by political campaigns.

Wisconsin, where I attended law school, is home to some of the strictest voter ID laws in the country. And without an ID and easy access to information on how to vote, I didn’t know how, or even if, I was allowed to vote in elections. At HBCUs and community colleges, where students are disproportionately young people of color, the barriers can be even harder to overcome.

Too many campuses nationwide lack the infrastructure to ensure students have the opportunity to learn, enroll and vote. It’s a shame that, for young people like me, the postal code is the biggest indicator of whether or not we will be able to vote. We need institutional change to ensure that students get accurate information and details about absentee, mail-in voting processes early or on Election Day.

While student loan bills are expected to resume this summer, a large majority of people in debt are not ready to start making those payments again. It will have devastating effects on young people and people of color like me. We must keep up the pressure by continuing to vote in record numbers and refusing to disengage when elected officials do not keep their campaign promises. Instead, we will hold them accountable in November.

We have the power to make student debt cancellation a major issue for politicians. We must continue this fight at the polls.

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Badie Tiara is a recent graduate of Marquette University School of Law and a former student advisory board member of the Fair Elections Center’s Campus Vote project for the 2021-2022 school year.

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Robert P. Matthews