When Quincy Wise, 23, opened his email a few days before Thanksgiving, he found a message informing him that his application for a $15,000 federal student loan was approved. He felt relieved. Even though he knew it would add to his existing debt of $20,000, he could now pay tuition for his spring semester as a graduate social work student at Columbia University.
Wise expects his debt will rise to $60,000 by the time he graduates in 2024. For most, this would seem a staggering amount, but for him, it is especially so. It is three times the annual income of his parents, who are disabled and receive benefits, according to Wise.
And if he goes on to pursue a doctoral degree, that debt will likely double or even triple. Yet Wise is determined to continue; a Ph.D. has been his goal since an early age, despite the demographic odds against him getting higher education.
“Growing up here in Harlem and with my background, I didn’t expect anything past high school,” Wise said.
His experience illustrates a conundrum. Often students like him from low-income households seek graduate degrees to escape the financial struggles of their childhood. Yet because they, more heavily than others, are financing their education through loans, they risk incurring so much debt that the potential value of their degree is undermined.
As a result, experts say, social mobility through higher education, a cornerstone of the American dream, is impeded.
“Maybe they’re evening the score on income, but because their debts are so much higher, it’s actually pushing them further behind,” said Laura Beamer, a lead researcher on student debt for the Jain Family Institute, a nonprofit applied research organization.
Most of the outstanding graduate student debt in this country is held by those with the fewest financial resources, according to an October report authored by Beamer. Divided by wealth category, the bottom 25% of masters’ and Ph.D. students account for 61% of that debt, she found. What’s more, Black students like Wise are more heavily indebted than any other group, according to data from the Survey of Consumer Finances, conducted by the Federal Reserve Board.
Graduate student debt is a sizable part of the student debt crisis – a crisis President Joe Biden aims to ease by canceling up to $20,000 of federal borrowers’ debt, a total of $400 billion. That effort was stalled last November by two separate lawsuits, one filed by six Republican-led states and the other by two individuals backed by the conservative Job Creators Network Foundation. The Supreme Court heard the cases on February 28. The court’s conservative majority questioned the plan’s legality, while the liberal justices doubted the plaintiffs had legal grounds to sue. The court’s ruling is expected in June.
If Biden’s forgiveness plan is allowed to move forward, it could alleviate Wise’s financial burden somewhat given that low-income students will get the most relief. Nonetheless, Wise found it daunting to learn that Beamer’s findings indicate he could end up with debt that will cobble his advancement.
“That’s actually very disturbing,” he said. “If I get a damned graduate degree and I’m still poor, I’m going to be mad.”
He has faced down challenges from a very young age. When Wise was a few months old, his biological mother was arrested and jailed for credit fraud. Wise said he doesn’t blame his mother, who was then single handedly raising five children.
“She was just trying to provide for us,” Wise said.
But was incarcerated for the next two years, and Wise never lived with her again.
When he was two, Wise was adopted by Amanda Payton and her husband Josephus Perry, friends of his grandmother. Payton was concerned because Wise hadn’t yet begun to talk. But he eventually made up for lost time, becoming so talkative that Payton recalls telling his speech therapist, “Man, they ain’t paying you enough. You got him talking, and now he won’t shut up.”
Payton stressed the importance of education and encouraged Wise’s passion for reading. One day during his sixth-grade year, she sent him to buy a book at a Barnes & Noble on the Upper West Side. On the way home, he got off the bus prematurely. Standing at W. 116 Street and Broadway, he saw the gates of Columbia for the first time and remembers thinking, “What is this magical place?” An aspiration of studying there someday was born.
To save money, he went to City College for his undergraduate degree in psychology, which he paid for with scholarships and by working at a restaurant and later as a tutor. Wise graduated in 2021 debt-free. He majored in psychology, but now he wanted to take his studies further and become a licensed clinical social worker.
He dealt with social workers regularly as a child, due to some behavioral issues, and as a college student when he was applying for public assistance.
“Oh, my gosh, I gave them so much attitude,” Wise said. “I feel sorry for it now.”
Payton remembers her son complaining about social workers. “Why do I need to go to them? I’m smarter than them,” he once said to her. “When you get the paper they got, you can say that, because they’ve got something you don’t have.”
Now, he’s moving closer to that paper.
With a social work degree, he hopes to change what he considers the flawed systems he encountered growing up. One of his main goals is to push for more accountability from those who work in the child welfare system.
“The system is really messed up,” Wise said.
Wise is now interning at a public elementary school and finds it frustrating how little change he can make by assisting only one person at a time. He’s thinking of alternative ways to make a difference, maybe by opening a private practice where adults and children can seek all the social and medical services that they need in one place. Or maybe even by going into politics.
But first, probably, a doctorate, which Payton is encouraging him to go after even if it will be costly.
“You told me right from the beginning that you were going to get your doctorate,” she said she still tells him. “We’re going to the doctorate stage.”
About the author(s)
Ragnhildur Thrastardottir is a journalist currently pursuing an M.S. degree in journalism at Columbia University.