Here is the newest in a podcast series called “Have You Heard,” this one about why it is a myth that college is the “great equalizer” between poor and more affluent students. The series is the work of Jennifer Berkshire and Aaron French. Berkshire is a freelance journalist and public education advocate who writes the lively EduShyster blog, where she discusses the serious consequences of corporate school reform. French is the creator of “Education on Tap,” a podcast produced by Teach For America.

Berkshire said they launched the series to broaden the debate about public education by introducing new voices and by showing that the issues — and solutions — are “more complicated and, frankly, more interesting than the talking points and shouting matches let on.”

And here’s the transcript:

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In this episode of Have You Heard, we share the stories of three low-income students, each of whom “gets” what researchers are just beginning to understand: that going to college isn’t the silver bullet to solving poverty. By saddling students with debt and degrees that are worth less than they are for better off students — if they finish at all — college isn’t just an inadequate fix for poverty, it may be making the problem worse.

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Aaron French:
Hey everyone. Welcome to another edition of Have You Heard. I’m Aaron French.

Jennifer Berkshire:
And I’m Jennifer Berkshire.

French:
Jennifer, why don’t you tell everybody what our topic of discussion is today?

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Berkshire:
Today we’re going to be talking about the college debt trap, and how it hits students who start school with very little money particularly hard.

French:
We were actually able to talk to three different students who are either currently on their college journey or have had to end it due to the crippling debt they had to take on.

Berkshire:
That’s right, and we’re also going to hear from a researcher who’s been digging deep into this topic and has found that students who come to school without any money experience it in a way that’s so different than their more affluent peers.

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French:
There’s also something else very different about today’s episode.

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Berkshire:
That’s a very nice transition there. What would that difference be?

French:
I’m narrating today, debuting my narrator voice on episode six.

Berkshire:
I’m a little worried that people are going to think they’ve landed on the wrong channel.

French:
That’s quite possible, but what do you say, should we head to campus?

Berkshire:
Let’s go.

Neil Swidey:
College has been, for a long time, considered the Great Equalizer; whatever you came from, whatever your economic circumstances were, as soon as you get on that college quad, the closing of that gap is supposed to begin magically. Historically, that did happen.

French:
That’s Neil Swidey, a writer for Boston Globe Magazine, and we’ll hear from him a few more times in today’s episode. He’s been studying the issue of student debt for quite some time. It’s a topic that’s gotten a bit of attention in an election year like 2016, but it’s not at all unfamiliar to millions of students.

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Stephanie Crawford:
My name is Stephanie Crawford. I am currently a Boston Public School teacher. I also am an enrichment coordinator at the All Dorchester Sports League and a farmer’s market manager. Right now I think I’m at a hundred thousand.

French:
When it comes down to the most basic of assumptions, the surest way out of poverty is through a college campus, Stephanie then should be one of the success stories. She didn’t grow up with much, but she went to college, got her degree, she has a solid, well-paying middle-class career. Even so, she didn’t always see herself on a quad poring over English Composition 101.

Crawford:
I was not interested in picking a college. I wasn’t super interested in it because other things were shinier, you know?

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French:
Stephanie’s path begins during her senior year of high school. After going to a college fair, she finds out she has a few options, but eventually ends up making the same choice that scores of other students do; going with the school that offers her the most money, but the financial aid she was offered wasn’t enough money, and when her family couldn’t make up the difference she had to take out loans. Lots and lots of loans.

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Crawford:
The interesting thing that I’m actually struggling with right now is that I didn’t pay attention. When you get there, they tell you to go to the finance office and they give you all these things that you can sign and do and bring home to your parents to sign and do, and so I said, “Okay, yeah, I’ll sign this,” and I brought it home to my mom, “Okay, sign this.”

French:
Suddenly, that middle-class life doesn’t look so attainable any more. After rent, groceries, transportation, loan payments, and the other costs of just living, it’s not surprising she lives paycheck to paycheck. Currently, Stephanie is doing all she can just to keep her car running.

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Crawford:
I make good money as a teacher now, but because I have so much loans, when they look at it, whenever I try to get a car or do things where they have to look at my credit they say, “You make money, but your debt-to-income ratio is so much higher.”

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French:
Let’s be honest here for a second; what teenager knows the term “loan-to-income ratio”? My guess? Very few, and Stephanie certainly wasn’t one of them, and yet the decision she was forced to make as a teenager are having a lasting impact on her financial health as an adult.

Crawford:
I was seventeen years old going into college. “Loan” to me meant, “Okay, I get a loan, and then something happens later, but I don’t know.” You know what I mean? It never really clicked until I graduated and they said, “By the way, it’s time to pay back your loans.” I’m like, “Oh, I have to pay for this stuff.”

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French:
Now, staring at a six figure debt, Stephanie is rethinking her decision.

Crawford:
I tell people all the time, I wish I just went to community college, paid whatever needed to be paid, and got my degree, because when I’m having my interviews and stuff like that people are not like, “Oh, what school did you go to? That’s awesome, we want you.” You know what I mean? They never say that.

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Swidey:
Imagine students in the high school level. In this kind of culture of aspiration they were told, “Go to college, go get ahead to college,” then these 18-year-olds who we as a society don’t allow to rent a car until they’re twenty-five without incurring a crazy surcharge, are being asked to make these monumental decisions without a lot of good advice.

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French:
What Neil has continually observed and what we heard in working on this episode for the podcast is that Stephanie’s story is actually quite rare, at least in the fact that she finished college. That part where she’s now burdened with huge school debt? That’s not unusual at all.

Swidey:
We all sort of accept this issue of college being this great equalizer and helping students with earning power and climb some rungs on the economic ladder, but when you actually look at what’s happening there, as I started to do in recent years, you become more disenchanted with the reality of the situation.

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French:
Josh Alba put off going to college for ten years just because he was worried about debt, and now he’s in the exact situation that Neil describes. He’s two semesters short of a degree with no current plans to return and he owes between ten and fifteen thousand dollars.

Josh Alba:
I was under the impression that it was really affordable, and to me “affordable” is free. Not even being silly.

French:
Josh learned quickly that going to school full time meant taking time away from full time work, that he needed loans not just for tuition, but to pay for the most basic stuff; gas, bus fare, books, living, groceries for him and his kids.

Alba:
Basic survival was what my priorities were, are still. I had to move back into my mother’s basement in order to just survive, and then I felt a lot of insecurity living in my mother’s basement, being as old as I am, and wanting to contribute in some way, especially to keep her off my back and say, “Hey, I’m working on getting a degree here.”

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French:
By now you can probably tell that there’s not just financial pressure mounting here, but also psychological pressure. For Josh, it’s the expectation that college is the way to get ahead.

Alba:
Definitely if you dropped out of college, you are somehow seen as a failure because this is the key to success, and then at the same time there’s some people in my family that have graduated from college, are getting their master’s, and have really good positions. That’s used as an example of the right way to do it.

French:
This is a no-brainer, right? Of course you go to college. You’ve probably even heard the statistic, “Students who graduate with a bachelor’s degree earn one million more than their counterparts who only finish high school,” but that’s not really the whole story. Here’s Neil Swidey again.

Swidey:
Low income students with a bachelor’s degree are making about two-thirds of what an affluent student with a bachelor’s degree is making, and yet over their career, by the midpoint in their career, that shrinks down to half what the affluent students are making. You see the engine is going in the wrong direction if it’s supposed to be equalizing.

French:
What Neil and others are finding is that low-income students don’t experience college the same way as their affluent peers. The networking, the job access, they just can’t be college kids. No time for fraternities or sororities, no intramural lacrosse teams, and forget about the a cappella group. Kids from low-income backgrounds are just trying to hang on and hang in.

Jasmin Johnson:
It got really difficult. It got really difficult because there’s only so many hours in a day, and if you do the math you’ve got your forty hours for your work week, and then what is it, eight to ten hours per class a week on your work? Four classes, five classes, that’s another forty to fifty hours. When do you have time to breathe?

French:
That’s twenty-five year old Jasmin Johnson. Her college journey started seven years ago. Through that whole period, she’s been working multiple jobs and her schedule is bonkers.

Johnson:
You get out of work at like 4:45, 4:50 if my manager would let me slide out, run down the street, catch the train, the Red Line to Quincy, to catch a 6 o’clock class to 10 o’clock, and then catch the train back to Ashmont to Dorchester to get up and do it all over again in the morning. I maybe got a regular six, five hours of sleep at night, if that, if I didn’t have homework to do that night. If I couldn’t get it done at work.

French:
Even as Jasmin has been balancing this chaotic schedule all this time, it’s only now that she’s getting the chance to focus on what she’s really interested in. That’s not something her affluent peers have to worry about. What’s becoming quite clear to her is that if she’d had room to breathe, maybe all those loans she had to take out could’ve supported a passion instead of a requirement.

Johnson:
Not only did it not end up being enough money, it ended up being money for the wrong thing. I originally started school for nursing. That’s what my mom wanted me to do, that’s what my dad wanted me to do, not at all what I wanted to do. Definitely have always had the gift of gab and wanted to find a way to do something positive with that and monetize that and not necessarily play with blood and needles.

French:
Four colleges, seven years, and an estimated $65,000 dollars in loans. If everything works out, Jasmin will graduate by the end of next year.

Johnson:
Unfortunately sometimes the test comes before the lesson, and I’ve learned after my hard test to take what you can handle, and it’s really not a race. It’s easy to look around and see kids in your class going to Harvard or to Yale, but you have to step back and remember you’re not from that neighborhood, you don’t come from families with money, and you literally have to turn, excuse my language, shit to sugar.

French:
Jasmin has a colorful way of saying what so many other low-income college students are experiencing; the cards are stacked against them. That if they make it, they’re really beating the odds, because generally speaking they don’t find any of that sugar. Yet, just for raising these questions, the same ones the students are raising themselves, some will say that we don’t believe all kids deserve a shot at higher education. That’s not the case at all.

Swidey:
We should not at all diminish or discourage students from aspiring to college, and four year college can be, for most students, the best option, but it’s not the best option for every student and we shouldn’t be making those students who take other options that are better for them made to feel inferior.

French:
It’s hard to ignore the double-edged sword low-income college students face; two steps forward if you graduate with a degree. One step back with burdensome, often inescapable student debt. Then, the idea of “affordable” or as our earlier guest Josh put it, “free” education, doesn’t seem like such a bad policy. In these political times though, there’s a loud populace who looks at that solution as just another handout.

Swidey:
That is not the reality. The students are dealt this crazy landscape right now of higher education and what the price to play is, and then they see the gaps once they get in there and are put in this squeeze, and then they’re coming out and they’re working without the earning power to pay back loans that gave them actually no benefit. That’s where we are.

Berkshire:
Thanks for tuning in to another edition of Have You Heard. If you want to share your thoughts or comments with us, you know where to find us. I’m on Twitter @EduShyster and Aaron can be located @AaronMoFoFrench. There, I said that with almost a straight face. If you’re interested in finding out more about the topic we talked about today, I’m going to share some resources on my blog, edushyster.com, including an interview that I did earlier with Globe writer Neil Swidey. Until next time, that’s what we’ve heard.
Like what you heard? Catch up on more great episodes of Have You Heard at https://soundcloud.com/haveyouheardpodcast