When policy makers talk about the student debt crisis, they focus on the growing amount owed by graduates. But unexpected costs and lack of money prevent many students from ever reaching the finish line. Temple University professor Sara Goldrick-Rab created the FAST Fund to deal with this problem after her research showed that the majority of dropouts resulted from a lack of money; the program grants money to college and university professors so that they can distribute it to students in crisis. When Goldrick-Rab tweeted about the first round of grants, Michael R. Strain, director of Economic Policy Studies at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank, replied: “Can they not get a credit card?”
The short answer? No.
Credit cards simply aren’t an option for most students because they don’t qualify.
Take Vanessa as an example. I learned Vanessa’s story while doing research on why so many people use check cashers and payday lenders instead of banks and credit cards. I worked as a teller at a check cashing store in the South Bronx and at a payday lender in Oakland, Calif., to understand how people managed their financial lives. I met and interviewed college and graduate students whose financial struggles and treatment by banks and credit card companies surprised me.
Vanessa lived with her mother while attending college to keep her expenses low. When her mother began having health problems, she moved in with one of Vanessa’s siblings, leaving Vanessa to manage on her own. It took Vanessa four months to find a roommate, during which time her bills started to mount. With limited income and mounting expenses, Vanessa turned to payday loans.
But first she did what Strain suggested: She applied for a credit card. She was denied because, like 45 million other Americans, she lacked a credit history. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau found that college students are among the most likely to lack the data or credit history necessary to get a credit card: between 64% and 67% of all 18 — to 19-year-olds are in this group.
Goldrick-Rab heads the Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice at Temple; her research team estimates that nearly 1 in 2 college students do not have enough to eat, and another 10 percent are homeless. The Hope Center helps colleges and universities, including prestigious institutions like the University of Pennsylvania, where I teach, who are starting food pantries for students and trying to address their financial emergencies. Those of us who work with students every day know that $200 a fortune to many.
Goldrick-Rab’s FAST Fund started after she published a book about a project that had her following 3,000 students at public colleges and universities. Half of the students she and her team tracked dropped out, and less than 20 percent finished their bachelor’s degree within five years. The number one reason for dropping out? Lack of money. Students in the study rarely finished unless their costs were fully covered, and those that did graduate left with a stunning level of debt. Nearly 70% of the class of 2018 took out student loans, and they graduated with an average debt of almost $30,000.
The FAST Fund is an admirable effort, but it’s a drop in the ocean of mounting student need. We cannot rely on charitable acts to solve the structural problems that underlie students’ extreme financial precarity. Policy makers like Michael Strain need to push for solutions that will enable everyone who wants to get a college education an affordable way to obtain it.
Lisa Servon is the Kevin and Erica Penn Presidential Professor and chair of the Department of City and Regional Planning at the University of Pennsylvania. She is the author of “The Unbanking of America: How the New Middle Class Survives” (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt 2017).