When former foster youth Jennifer Noonan heard the announcement, she felt a weight lifted off her shoulders. Having recently earned her associate’s degree from Mt. Hood Community College in Portland, Oregon, the decision means that by the end of the year, she will only owe $6,000 in student loan debt. More importantly, it signifies that her children will be equipped with better resources to combat intergenerational trauma and have a chance at success.
“Once I pay it off, I can be in a position to buy a house sooner for my children,” Noonan said. “And that means my children will have [the] future that I’ve been working hard for—the whole reason I even enrolled in college in the first place was to provide a better future.”
There has been ongoing debate about student debt relief from both political parties. Some critics say the decision is a bailout for white-collar professionals and claim the plan could encourage further inflation in college tuition.
Despite what critics say, Sixto Cancel, the CEO of Think of Us, a research and design lab focused on systems transformation and child welfare, believes the news overwhelmingly benefits one underrepresented demographic in particular: foster youth.
As a former foster youth himself, Cancel sees the plan as a way to help the foster care community get back on their feet. While former foster youth may be able to obtain employment, having to pay back loans can quickly set them back again.
“Where we could be putting money into increasing our income, we’re not, because that money is being diverted,” Cancel said. “And so, from an economic standpoint, for our population—one that is considered in deep poverty—this is actually news that allows us to be able to participate and engage in the economy.”
Barriers to education
According to the National Foster Youth Institute, over 23,000 children age out of the U.S. foster care system each year. Though 70% of foster youth say they would like to attend college someday, less than 3% actually earn a degree at any point in their lifetime. Furthermore, the 2011 Midwest Study out of the University of Chicago’s Chapin Hall found that 73.8% of currently enrolled foster youth paid for college through scholarships and grants, while 67.6% took out loans. Of these respondents, 41.9% said their loans would be paid off in the next few years, while 50.5% said there would be a long way to go before the loans are paid off.
During the pandemic, community college and university dropout rates for former foster youth increased dramatically as other responsibilities arose, such as needing to work or care for the family. Simultaneously, tuition became the most frequently self-stated need in a survey of 24,695 foster care youths.
Growing up in foster care in Bridgeport, Connecticut, Cancel has always viewed education as the gateway through which he could escape the five projects, high poverty, and numerous gangs that proliferated his neighborhood. Before attending college, he created an SAT prep tutoring group to help foster youth like him increase their standardized test scores.
“At the end of the day, people want to be happy, people want to be valued, and people want to wake up and do meaningful work. And in order to do meaningful work, there has to be learning,” he said.
Despite her love of the arts and voracious appetite for consuming academic articles, Noonan found it difficult to manage school as a foster youth. After having her first child at 18 years old, she graduated high school a year late and promptly aged out of the system during the 2008 recession, when she could only obtain low-wage, part-time jobs without child care.
Nevertheless, she always maintained a strong yearning to return to school. In 2012, Noonan began her attempt for a Chafee Grant, a $5,000 annual stipend meant to help foster youth enrolling in technical training or college, yet she repeatedly missed the age cut-offs, even as they were raised. After three tries, she relented and decided to just enroll at age 27.
“I decided instead of focusing on the barriers, I wasn’t going to let that be what prevents me from keeping going,” Noonan said.
Noonan made it work by taking out every grant and loan at her disposal—including the Oregon Opportunity Grant, the Oregon Student Childcare Grant, the Pell Grant, and both unsubsidized and subsidized loans.
“I understood I had to pay that back—I understood the gravity of it,” she said. “And I felt negative feelings knowing that I probably wouldn’t be able to pay these back, [yet] still needing to rely upon it for me to even go through college, so that I could provide a better future for my children.”
A second chance
Following Biden’s recent announcement, Noonan will only have $6,000 in student debt to repay and is currently working to obtain her bachelor’s degree from Portland State University. She hopes this loan forgiveness will attract more former foster youth to attend college.
Similarly, Cancel believes Biden’s plan can offer a second chance to people with backgrounds like his brother’s, who was unable to complete college due to holding multiple jobs and supporting himself and his family.
“This wipeout says, ‘Oh, maybe I can give this another shot,’” he said. “People, psychologically, are like, ‘This might be my moment to reengage, because [we’re] given a second chance.’”
Although the money won’t completely eradicate student debt, for those in greatest need, it could mean breaking the cycles of poverty, homelessness, and illiteracy.
“I think we always have to celebrate when we take steps of bravery,” Cancel said. “It’s the incremental progress, along with the pressure from the outside, that gets us to our main goal. It feels to me that we’re on track.”
Lily Levine (she/her) is a reporter based in Los Angeles and New York. During her time at the University of Chicago, she covered the intersection between health, education, environmental justice, and racial equity for the South Side Weekly. Follow her on Twitter @lilyylev.
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