Nicki Minaj Gesture Highlights How Problematic College Funding Is
Jillian Berman documents how hip hop artist Nicki Minaj caught the internet’s attention 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 Nicki 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.
Nicki Minaj: Benefactor
The tweets to Nicki 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.
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.
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.
Whether accidentally or purposely, Minaj’s gesture has expanded the conversation surrounding student debt and college costs to include its more systematic roots. While she 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.
What’s more, the Twitter interactions do accurately reflect what we know about student debt and college costs from data. 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.
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.
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.