How Sexual Violence Can Make Student Debt Harder to Pay Off

In this op-ed, Omny Miranda Martone, founder and CEO of the Sexual Violence Prevention Association, shares stories about sexual assault survivors’ experiences with student debt.

Content Warning: Discussion of sexual violence including rape, sexual assault, and sexual harassment.

Alex’s* life completely changed after she was raped. She was attending university at the time and her assailant was in one of her classes. After the attack, she said she dropped it to avoid him. She developed PTSD and eventually had to withdraw from her remaining courses in order to process her trauma. This meant she had to repeat the entire semester. 

“When I came back, I had to retake all the classes I dropped. My school didn’t repay me for that semester. This increased my loans by over $25,000,” she shared in a survey by my organization, the Sexual Violence Prevention Association. The pause on student loans has empowered her to afford rent, food, therapy, and a small bit of savings. Unfortunately, the freeze is scheduled to end on August 31. “I’m not sure what I’m going to do once the freeze ends. I’m on an income-based repayment plan, but even with that I will be unable to afford my basic necessities.”

On September 1, the freeze on federal student loans will end for roughly 43 million people, but many feel the need for more action. According to a poll by Morning Consult and Politico, 62% of voters believe some student debt should be canceled and 19% believe all student debt should be canceled. Last week, during the Debt Collective Day of Action, thousands of people across the country advocated for student debt to be wiped out.

Of people who hold student debt, resuming loan payments will impact some more than others. Restarting student loans will hurt Black women the most. A 2021 report by the American Association of University Women found that women hold two-thirds of the $1.6 trillion student loan debt. The same report found that, on average, Black women have 22% more student debt than white women, and the highest debt of any demographic.

Campus sexual violence is also concentrated among women, particularly Black women. More than 90% of victims of rape and sexual assault are women, and Black women are more likely to experience sexual violence than white women. Among undergraduate students, 33% of women experience rape, sexual assault, sexual harassment, or another form of sexual violence.

Unfortunately, Alex is not alone in her struggle with debt after assault. As a result of campus sexual violence, many students face increased student loans and/or more difficulty paying off their loans. Alex’s story is one of many that was documented by the Sexual Violence Prevention Association in a recent survey on the inextricable link between campus sexual violence and student loan debt.

Through our survey, we found that many survivors of campus sexual violence have to retake courses after withdrawing from classes to recover, taking medical leave, or falling behind and failing as a result of trauma. Additionally, survivors can lose their scholarships because they change programs or leave extracurriculars, like sports, in order to avoid their attacker or to take time processing their trauma. Others lose their scholarship because it takes them longer to graduate or they have to retake courses.

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