Amid 2019’s ongoing pursuit for the next presidential chair, there’s one polemical speaking point burning through political debates: the student debt crisis.
The whopping amounts of student loan debt continues to grow into burdensome numbers, which now exceeds $1.6 trillion. From a socioeconomic standpoint, the crushing weight of student loans fall mainly on top of Black students and those from middle and lower-income households. Sadly, the trajectory of this crisis is fast moving right onto the shoulders of future generations to come, and even more formidably, the American economy as well.
New Orleans rap artist Dee-1 experienced this firsthand after graduating from Louisiana State University. The former RCA signee used part of his record label advance to pay off his student debt—a move that proved beneficial to him as he launched a music career affixed with unexpected expenses. This power move also became the foundation of his viral 2016 hit, “Sallie Mae Back,” where the NOLA rapper celebrates paying off his student loan debt in full. Ironically, the success of the single also fostered a relationship between the student loan association and Dee-1, landing in a full-fledged partnership. Through the collaboration, he embarked on Dee-1's Knowledge For College tour, which brought him to the stages of 18 high schools in five U.S. states. He also brought along $95,000 in scholarship awards via the Sallie Mae-presented tour run.
BET.com spoke with Dee about his personal experiences with student loans, its intersection with politics, the implications of the student loan debt crisis and his advice for students currently up against the financial aid epidemic.
BET: You used your advance to pay off your student loans. Was that disappointing to you in any way? Perhaps, you had other plans for that money?
Dee-1: It was very disappointing that I had to use my advance from signing a major label record deal to pay off my student loans. I just came to the realization that paying off your student loan debt is the new American dream. Growing up, you always thought that if you signed a big record deal that you would buy your mom a new house or buy yourself a new house. I didn't do any of that. I used a chunk of it to finish paying off my student loans, and I still felt proud afterward because I finally cleared that debt out of the way. But, growing up, especially in New Orleans, there's the era of Cash Money Records. You think about all of the cars that they'd buy with their money and all the big mansions that you'd fantasize about as a kid. I didn't do any of that with that money. I had to pay my student loans off.
BET: Before paying it off, would you say you struggled under the weight of the payments compared to your other bills/expenses?
Dee-1: Yes. Before I paid my loans off, there were many months that I didn't pay on them at all. I didn't have that much extra capital to be able to pay what they wanted for that month. I had to pay rent for my apartment. I had day-to-day expenses like food and gas to get to and from work. I was also funding my music career out of pocket, so paying for posters, flyers, studio time, and all of those expenses associated with being an independent artist. It was tough when you add in student loans on top of that stuff. So a lot of times, I wouldn't pay my loans and wasn't thinking about the negative implications of it.
BET: Is the student debt crisis something that political candidates need to have in their top 3 priorities? Why/why not?
Dee-1: Of course! If a candidate doesn't have the student debt crisis in their top three priorities as president of the United States of America, then you are in no way capable of leading this country. In no way. That means you're out of touch with what matters most. Right now, we keep encouraging kids to go to college, but we keep making it harder for them to pay for it. That's a contradiction that needs to be addressed by our next president.
BET: What do you think of candidates who vow to at least attempt to cancel student debt?
Dee-1: It feels good. It's like somebody flirting with you, and telling you something really nice that they know you want to hear, and that's going to stroke your ego and make you smile. That's how I feel about it, but can they actually deliver on that and actually cancel student loan debt? I don't think it's possible to totally eradicate all student loan debt as a whole. So, anyone who says that, I would have a ton of follow-up questions for them in terms of how they would implement that. The reason why politics is tough for me to really get down with is because I feel like candidates have to run on a platform where they're making a bunch of promises that they know they can't keep.
BET: Currently, student debt exceeds $1.5 trillion and is held mainly by middle-class students and those who come from lower-income households. Is it safe to say that people in this demographic should hold off on going to college and refuse to take out student loans, or go forth with their education, but pace themselves through semesters so as not to build up debt?
Dee-1: Well this is the thing-- debt in and of itself isn't something that should deter a student from going to college. My rule of thumb is this: it's okay to take out student loans if you know that you'll complete college because completing college is the key. Just going to college and taking out loans doesn't make any sense because if you're eventually going to drop out, you still have to pay those loans back, which you took out for no reason. But, if you vow to complete college, never take out more in student loans than what you expect your starting salary to be for your future career. If you know that you're going to school to be a teacher, and let's say coming out of college as a teacher, you'll make $50,000 a year. Starting out, it doesn't make sense to take out $175,000 in student loan debt. Then, it'll be impossible and you'll be in way over your head when you're trying to pay that amount back. Think about the starting salary of your future profession and let that serve as a metric for how much you should be cool with taking out in student loans.
That goes for which school you should attend as well. Don't go to a school just because your friends are going there or people are saying this is the 'popping' school to go to. You have to think about your personal financial situation.
BET: What would your advice be to students who are currently struggling to pay off loans?
Dee-1: At this point, you've already taken the loans out, so you have to be able to separate your wants from your needs in your personal budget. Make sure your needs are at the top of your list, and you'll have to eliminate a lot of your wants in order to make room to pay off those student loans. Wants are not mandatory, so make a list, separate the wants from the needs, and figure out what you can remove from your expenses that will make more space in your budget to pay off your loans.
I would also say don't be afraid to talk to professionals about your financial situation. Don't be afraid to talk to companies that you've taken the loan out from because oftentimes if you communicate with them and explain your situation, there are different ways they can work with you. But, the worst thing we can do is be embarrassed and not want to talk about it at all.
What about to students who are considering taking out a loan?
Dee-1: Make sure that you use your student loans to fund your education and not your lifestyle! I made mistakes in that area. I took out student loans to fund my music career in college, have the freshest clothes on campus, and things like that. I know people who took out student loans to put rims and Lamborghini doors on their cars. Make sure that loan money goes toward your education only-- that's your tuition, that's your room and board, etc. It's not mandatory that you have to ball out during college. I think that in college, you should actually learn how to live on a tight budget. There's nothing wrong with penny-pinching during your college years because you're going to ball out once you graduate. That's the plan. But, if you try to ball out on your student loans, that will be short-lived happiness. I want to reiterate that you shouldn't take out more in student loans than what you plan to make with your expected starting salary. That is a rule of thumb that I really go hard behind because people be in school for six and seven years sometimes and taking out loans as a general studies major. Yet, you took out $100,000 in loans to major in general studies, and it's like 'What?' that makes no sense.
So just be smart, be blessed, be real, be righteous and be relevant.
(Photo: Paras Griffin/Getty Images for Black Music Honors)