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Nicki minaj

Nicki Minaj just revealed how dire the student-loan crisis really is

Hip hop artist Nicki Minaj caught the internet’s attention over the weekend for offering to help out with some of her fans’ college costs and student loans. Minaj’s generosity highlights the challenges students face financing their education in an era of eroding public support for higher education.

Over the past few decades, states and local governments have pulled back on funding their public colleges. At the same time, the value of the Pell grant, the money the federal government provides to low-income students to attend college, has plummeted. All of that has combined to push up the cost of college for families, leaving them in many cases to save, scrounge and borrow to afford a degree.

As a result, students and borrowers are increasingly turning to others to help fund their degrees — including family and friends, and even celebrities like Minaj. In the two years leading up to October of last year, donations to education-related campaigns on GoFundMe, a site that allows people to solicit donations from their community, tripled to more than $100 million.

Not everyone believes trend of crowdsourcing (or, in this case, Twittersourcing) funds is a good thing. “That’s just really problematic,” said Tressie McMillan Cottom, a sociology professor at Virginia Commonwealth University, said.

The tweets to Minaj are probably the most high-profile example. Some students asked the star to cover funding gaps so they could afford to continue pursuing their degree. Others asked her to help with expenses like room and board, and equipment. And some student-loan borrowers are already on the hook from their time in school. (A representative for Minaj didn’t immediately return a message seeking further comment on her tweets).

“It’s very clear that our current system of paying for college doesn’t do a good enough job ensuring students don’t face gaps,” said Ben Miller, the senior director of postsecondary education at the Center for American Progress, a left-leaning think tank. “The result is either they lack the money for emergencies or they have to borrow and then struggle with loans.”

“If we’re in a situation where we’re relying on celebrity recruitment via Twitter to make ends meet for college students, we’re screwed,” Miller said.

Indeed, outstanding student loan debt now stands at $1.4 trillion and more than 1 million borrowers defaulted on their loans last year. There are a variety of reasons why borrowers may struggle to pay back their loans, including: they didn’t earn a degree or the one they got isn’t valuable in the labor market, stagnant wages make their loan payments tougher to afford and a confusing student loan system that causes hiccups when students try to access affordable repayment plans.

And there’s no shortage of financial challenges that students, particularly those who are low-income, face while in school. For some, a car repair or the loss of a part-time job can mean the difference between graduating college or dropping out with no degree. Some schools, like Georgia State University, have started to recognize this and offer their students emergency grants of a few hundred dollars to help get them through to graduation.

Still, those solutions often function more like Band-Aids and they aren’t yet widespread enough to put a major dent in the challenges students face paying for college.

As news of Minaj’s gesture blew up over the weekend, Cottom tried to do what she could to expand the conversation surrounding student debt and college costs to include its more systematic roots. She offered to send the users who tweeted at Minaj — who she dubbed “Minaj scholars” — copies of her book, “Lower Ed: The Troubling Rise of For-Profit Colleges in the New Economy.”

“It’s great for these individuals whose debt is wiped out” she said. But Minaj’s gesture, which she described as admirable, is “just really another symbol of how poorly we’re taking care of each other,” Cottom added.

Though Minaj certainly can’t solve the college affordability and student-debt crisis with her tweets, she did bring more attention to the issue, which is an important step, said Sara Goldrick-Rab, professor at Temple University, and an expert on college costs. What’s more, the Twitter interactions do accurately reflect what we know about student debt and college costs from data, she said. Many of the requests were for relatively small amounts and it’s often those with small funding gaps and low levels of debt who struggle the most.

“The more people with big voices who can talk about this the better,” she said. “We are not exactly run amok with celebrities who even acknowledge college prices.”

Still, it does seem that student debt and college affordability are becoming increasingly relevant in popular culture as the struggle to afford school becomes an almost universal American experience. Minaj isn’t the first celebrity to offer to pay off student loans and stars ranging from Beynoce to LeBron James have their own scholarship programs. What’s more, movies, television shows and books are increasingly featuring stories surrounding the challenges affording college or paying back student loans.

“I can’t imagine somebody like Madonna having this problem,” Cottom said, noting that the scale of the challenges posed to students by college costs was much smaller in the 1980s at the height of Madonna’s fame.

Stakeholders and policymakers have proposed a variety of changes to our college financing system that could curb reliance on education-related crowdsourcing. Those include increasing state investment in higher education, which could push down tuition, programs that make college debt- or tuition-free and directing more financial aid to low-income students instead of using it to lure students who could afford college without the help.

To find out more, visit  www.studentdebtcenter.org