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  • Writer's pictureCharlotte B. Tillman

Balancing the Promise of the American Dream Amid the Student Loan Debt Crisis

Updated: Sep 16, 2022


"College is part of the American dream. It shouldn't be part of a financial nightmare..."


- Barbara Mikulski


The American dream is presented as something attainable for those who possess great determination and simply work hard. Throughout our nation's history, leaders have made countless declarations, politicians have given numerous speeches, and scholars have written in abundance regarding the accessibility of the American dream. The phrase's origin focused on democracy, equality, liberty, and justice for all citizens. Over time, the American dream soon prioritized the ideals of wealth and prosperity as cornerstones of success. This narrowed the pathway to the American dream, making it exclusive for the individuals who already have the means to stay above the fray and more challenging for people on the opposite end of the spectrum. For decades, the have-nots have tried relentlessly to find footing on an uneven, uncertain, and unfair beam of hope.


In many cases, the only resolution for these individuals to attain some semblance of the American dream is by seeking higher education. By earning a college degree, one believes one becomes marketable and can discover entry points to tight or closed spaces. The dilemma is that these individuals often cannot afford to pay tuition, so they subscribe to utilizing federal student loans to fund their college ventures. Sadly, this affects women primarily. According to an analysis by Education Trust, women hold nearly two-thirds of the 1.7 trillion owed in federal student loan debt. Women of color have accrued the most student loan debt. Latino women borrowed approximately $25,000 on average for their undergraduate studies and averaged $43,000 for their graduate studies. The average student loan funds borrowed by Native American women was $32,000 for undergraduate studies and $36,000 for graduate studies. Regarding Asian American women, they borrowed an average of $20,000 in student loans for undergraduate studies and $21,000 for graduate studies. However, Black women hold the most student loan debt, with an average of $38,000 in undergraduate student loans and $58,000 in graduate student loans. The student loan crisis disproportionately affects women of color, making it nearly impossible for them to live a balanced life.


The crisis is impacting women of color on all fronts. High-interest rates on student loans are problematic; they increase monthly payments at an alarming rate. Thus, causing many women to apply for forbearance or default on their loans. Next, the median earning gap between women and men is ever present, with women making, on average, $24,000 less than men. The job market forecast for competitive salaries remains dismal for women of color as they are often overqualified and settle for less-paying jobs to make ends meet. Lastly, the racial wealth gap disparities make it increasingly difficult for women of color to find affordable housing and healthcare. Women of color often do not bring home enough income to pay for their everyday needs and cannot offset the cost of their student loans. Their quest for the American dream becomes a balancing act between their desires, basic needs, and reality, resulting in an endless nightmare. Therefore, if college is your chosen pathway to pursue the American dream, it is essential to take proactive measures to ensure you don't lose your balance and fall victim to the abyss of the student loan debt crisis. The following are helpful tips that may assist with the high costs of the higher education path:


For those considering attending college or currently attending college:

  • Seek scholarships such as the United Negro College Fund. The UNCF is the nation’s largest private scholarship provider to minority group members. Each year, UNCF awards more than $100 million in scholarships to students attending more than 1,100 schools across the country. Visit the https://uncf.org/ website for more information.

  • Apply for a Pell Grant- Federal Pell Grants usually are awarded only to undergraduate students who display exceptional financial need and have not earned a bachelor's, graduate, or professional degree. Unlike a loan, a Pell grant does not have to be repaid except under certain circumstances. Visit https://studentaid.gov/understand-aid/types/grants/pell for more information.

  • Apply to the Federal Work-Study Program- Federal Work-Study provides part-time jobs for undergraduate and graduate students with financial needs, allowing them to earn money to help pay education expenses. The program encourages community service work and work related to the student’s course of study. Visit https://studentaid.gov/understand-aid/types/work-study for more information.

  • Apply to be a Resident Assistant- Upon entering college, inquire about the institution's Resident Assistant program. Resident Assistants (RAs) are undergraduate or graduate student staff members who live in the residence halls. RAs receive free housing and a meal plan in exchange for their work.

  • Volunteer with the Peace Corp- Upon completion of two years of service, the Peace Corps provides each Volunteer with more than $10,000 (pre-tax) to help with the transition to life back home. Visit https://www.peacecorps.gov/ for more information.

  • Do a Gap Year of Service with City Year- City Year partners with more than 100 leading colleges and universities to provide scholarships at the graduate and undergraduate levels to City Year alums. Each year, over $3 million is available in alum scholarships. Visit https://www.cityyear.org/ for more information.

For those who have completed college:

  • Enroll in an Income-Driven Repayment Plan.

  • Pay extra towards the principal.

  • Inquire about Public Service Loan Forgiveness (NOTE: You must apply before October 31, 2022. Visit https://www.whitehouse.gov/publicserviceloanforgiveness/ for more information).

  • Refinance at a lower interest rate.

Visit the Federal Student Aid website at https://studentaid.gov/ for more information on ways to manage your student loan debt.

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