In the midst of a student debt crisis, BIPOC students are falling through the cracks

Students are putting education on hold until they can pay back their debt.

Days for Aysha Akhtar are, for the most part, the same.

She gets up, hops on her computer, and attends class from the comfort of her own home. Some days she does required readings for her courses. It’s a never-ending cycle: get up, attend classes, read, stress, and repeat.

Akhtar is a first-year master’s student at McMaster University where she studies health, ageing, and society, an interdisciplinary program designed to critically examine the impact ageing has on societies around the world. The program also examines the effects of new technologies on healthcare, ethics, and human lives.

Her passion for mental health advocacy motivated her to apply and enrol in the program despite her student loan debt that has been accruing since her undergraduate years.

“I’m hoping to do research on the global mental health movement […] I didn’t want to do myself a disservice by studying something I didn’t love,” she told The Pigeon in an interview.

The thought of paying back her student loans looms in the back of her mind, however.

Akhtar knows that the first 10 to 15 years after she graduates will be spent paying back her student loans. One of her biggest worries is finding a full-time job related to her degree—her graduate program isn’t one that will guarantee employment because of its interdisciplinary nature.

This, coupled with the recession brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, means that Akhtar is facing pressure to secure employment straight after graduation and make a dent in her student debt.

Akhtar decided to take a break after completing her undergraduate degree in 2019 to focus on graduate school applications. She wanted to get a master’s degree to expand her skills and job prospects, even though that meant putting herself into more debt than she was already in. Since Premier Doug Ford’s government abolished the grace period for the Ontario Student Assistance Program (OSAP), she was bombarded with notices that she had to pay back the student debt she’d taken on during her bachelor’s degree.

Akhtar was pressured to get a job to pay back her loans, which she’d begun accruing interest on. Eventually, despite her fears, she decided to pursue her master’s in health, ageing, and society to follow her interests and passions.

“Since the Ontario government got rid of the grace period, I was incurring interest [on my student loans from my undergraduate degree],” Akhtar said. “On top of that, because my dad entered retirement and he’s the one who earned an income for the household, I also have to support my family.”

“I felt like I should be getting a job.”

Akhtar’s experience is far too common. For a long time, many students and graduates who are Black, Indigenous, and people of colour (BIPOC) have fallen through the cracks when it comes to post-secondary education and student loan debt.

They’re more likely to come from low-income households and rely on student loans to finance their post-secondary education. They’re also the ones more likely to be burdened by student loan repayments because they earn lower incomes compared to their white peers.

In the US, Black students are especially reliant on student loans to fund their post-secondary education. The National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP) and the Centre for Responsible Lending (CRL) reported that, on average, Black students graduated with almost $40,000 in student loan debt in 2016.

Black graduates are also more likely to default on their student loans compared to white borrowers; 49 per cent of Black graduates in the US who entered post-secondary education in the 2003/2004 academic year as undergraduates defaulted on their loans by 2016.

On both sides of the border, the weight of student loan debt pressures students to find full-time jobs right after graduation, but this is easier said than done.

In Canada, Black, Arab, and South Asian people experience disproportionately high rates of unemployment, according to Statistics Canada’s July 2020 labour force survey data.

BIPOC people in Canada are also slightly more likely than those in the US to face discrimination during hiring, according to a 2019 study published by Sociological Science.

For Sidra Batool, finding full-time work in her field was a struggle. She graduated from the University of Toronto (U of T) with a bachelor’s in environmental science in 2014 and struggled to find work in her career field. She moved back home to save on rent but still tries to pitch in for groceries. She worked at Square One, a mall in Mississauga, Ont., for four years before she found full-time employment.

Student debt also means that students are delaying major life milestones like starting a family, buying a home, or saving for retirement. Many also delay further education and certification because of their debt.

Currently, Batool is a human resources management student at Ryerson University’s Chang School of Continuing Education, and she worked for several years before she went back to school.

When she decided to go back, Batool scoured the internet for grants and scholarships so she could afford tuition fees.

“I’m actually close to paying back my loans because it’s been five years […] Even then, I looked carefully into [which] universities were offering grants and scholarships when I was applying for school,” Batool said.

Ultimately, she chose to go to the Chang School because of its robust bursary program for its students.

Since the Canadian government doesn’t collect race-based data on loans, it’s impossible to know the racial and ethnic breakdown of students who apply for student loans. Statistics Canada’s National Graduates Survey only breaks down the data by level of study, number of graduates, gender, age of graduation, and whether or not students planned to pursue further post-secondary education after graduation.

Some advocates say the lack of race-based data makes it hard to identify inequities in the post-secondary education system in Canada.

Economist and labour market expert Bolanle Alake-Apata said race-based data is important to identify solutions for issues targeting a particular racial or ethnic group.

“It’s really hard to analyze something if you don’t have the information in front of you. How do we know what’s really going on?” she said.

Race-based data is also important for students to understand how diverse the job market is on a national level.

“We need more information like this to tell the stories of BIPOC individuals all across Canada,” Alake-Apata added.

Shane Henry, a Black undergraduate social work student at Ryerson University, advocates for a broader perspective. According to him, all students are experiencing varying degrees of student loan debt, mental health issues, and food insecurity.

He feels that solutions to these problems need to target the entire student population.

“We have to look collectively at how we can address the problem, instead of just further isolating specific populations,” Henry said.

Henry is also a passionate advocate for increased mental health resources for students, especially since many are out of work due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

While the employment rates for youth aged 15 to 24 rose in September, it has still not reached the levels attained in February 2020. Social distancing measures and distance learning have also impacted students’ mental health.

The Toronto Star reported that students who had no history of mental health concerns were reporting greater psychological distress during the pandemic compared to their peers who had pre-existing conditions. 

“The government needs to understand that these issues and problems are not new,” Henry said. “Students have been fighting to get into the job market forever. We’ve been experiencing [mental health issues] as students forever.”

“The pandemic has just exacerbated this to the next level.”

Various student groups across Canada have been demanding better support during the pandemic, especially for BIPOC students whose communities are disproportionately affected by COVID-19.

The Alberta Students’ Executive Council (ASEC) recently developed a task force to tackle and address the needs of BIPOC students across the 17 post-secondary institutions it represents. The task force was spearheaded by Indigenous student leaders and will include a bylaw review to better meet the needs of racialized students in Alberta.

Emmanuel Barker, the director of public relations and advocacy for ASEC, said the organization has a lot of work to do to tackle equity and diversity issues.

“ASEC has not been in a place to be perfectly informed about BIPOC issues, to be honest. That’s why we created a working group at the behest of our students to make sure our organization is sensitive to the needs of those students,” Barker told The Pigeon.

ASEC also partnered with the British Columbia Federation of Students (BCFS) on an advocacy campaign that calls upon the federal government to permanently eliminate interest on student loans.

In a press release published on Nov. 25, the BCFS said eliminating student loan interest would aid in the post-pandemic economic recovery—which is expected to take several years.

This came after the House of Commons unanimously adopted a motion calling for the federal government to extend its student loan moratorium until May 31, 2021. The moratorium would pause all payments and accrual of interest if approved.

“The student loan interest rate is an issue. As the economy tends towards a downturn, advanced education is a really important part of bringing not only Alberta’s economy but Canada’s economy back to where it was prior to the COVID-19 pandemic,” Barker said.

“Our primary concern for our organization is the concept that student debt becomes family debt. Even after you find permanent employment, debt is a huge obstacle, especially for Black and Indigenous peoples.”

Barker echoed the need for collective action regarding student issues.

“The reduction in the overall cost of […] education by reducing student loan interest is one of the primary ways to reduce the financial burden for all students,” he said.

One idea that has floated around social media is the idea of student loan forgiveness, where governments write off and eliminate someone’s student loan debt. It is unclear who started the movement for total student loan forgiveness, but the conversation was recently made popular by American politicians Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.).

If this becomes a reality, Canada would be writing off more than $11 billion in student loans.

“Student loan forgiveness would help me 100 per cent. I [could] take my time looking for a job and I [wouldn’t] feel the pressure to take the first job I get,” Aktar said. “This [would] also help my family and help build my own financial security.”

Henry, too, said that student loan forgiveness would open up so many doors for him as a student.

“It takes that stress away from you,” he said. “You don’t have to worry if you decide to take a year off before you want to pursue your master’s or your Ph.D.”

“You don’t have to worry about how you can sustain your life while finding a job.”

Paula Tran is a Toronto-based freelance journalist who’s always interested in a good story. Their interests include LGBTQ+ issues, politics, race issues in the GTA, and housing affordability. Currently, they’re a Masters of Journalism candidate at the Ryerson School of Journalism. 

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