The Environmental Cost of Unaffordable Education

Clara De Leon, a second-year at Syracuse University, where tuition exceeds $45,000, has anxieties about the climate crisis. Yet, the bank she is borrowing from to finance her education makes investments that contribute significantly to climate change.

“Climate change weighs a lot on my mind because it is evidence that the world we live in today is changing, and not in a good way,” De Leon said.

“I have a student loan from Citizens Bank, and it makes me very angry because I feel kind of  helpless,” she said. “I have no choice but to take out student loans and it’s frustrating that I have no control over where it goes.”

Citizens Bank is owned by the Royal Bank of Scotland, which has invested over $4 billion in the fossil fuel industry since 2015. As students rely on loans to obtain an education, every dollar they pay back is then potentially used for the exploration and extraction of fossil fuels.

Graph from Rainforest Action Network (https://www.ran.org/bankingonclimatechange2019/#data-panel)

Despite people like De Leon becoming more concerned with climate change, industries that use fossil fuels to operate remain loosely regulated by policy makers.

While pressure on financial giants and government institutions can take many years to develop, there are places to start now when it comes to dismantling the fossil fuel industry, says James Recht, an assistant professor of psychiatry at Harvard University who headed the 2017 protests demanding that Harvard divest from fossil fuels. 

“The solutions I'm thinking of are federal legislation that forgives all outstanding student debt, perhaps in exchange for some period of compulsory public service, or perhaps a simple across-the-board cancellation of said debt,” Recht said. “Also, shareholder action that forces Wells Fargo and its fellow institutions to stop financing any new fossil fuel projects or any expansion of existing projects,” he said.

The less money that goes into these banks, Recht said, the less they have to invest in the fossil fuel industry. Making higher education universally affordable would diminish the need for student loans and leave banks like Wells Fargo with a tighter investment budget. 

Data from collegebaord.org

The 2020 Democratic presidential debates have seen frontrunners address plans for implementing the Green New Deal, a proposal that’s centered around phasing out fossil fuels to combat climate change. But higher education and student loan debt cancellation plans have varied from candidate to candidate.

Joe Biden wants to lower the monthly payment for those with income-driven repayment plans and make two years of community college free. Elizabeth Warren assured that 95 percent of Americans in debt would have at least some loans relieved with her newly proposed bill. Bernie Sanders aims to spend $2.2 trillion on making higher education virtually free and cancel all current debt.

“Higher education is the foundation of a healthy, sustainable democracy. Universal access to higher education is the most effective way to reduce and eliminate disparities in wealth and power,” Recht said.

“The more access a society has to higher education, the less likely it is to suffer from pathologies like systemic racism, police violence, epidemic murder rates, drug addiction and suicide, de jure segregation, homophobia, and misogyny,” Recht concluded.