Last month, Senator Tim Kaine introduced the SUCCESS Act, to support student survivors of sexual assault and other violence. The groundbreaking legislation would help improve academic outcomes for student survivors of violence and help ensure universities and colleges have the resources to support them. Senator John Fetterman and Congresswoman Madeleine Herd also recently introduced a bill to suspend student loan payments for students who leave school due to violence and extend the existing grace period for repayment. Students need support from this proposed legislation right now.
As a recent study by the Government Accountability Office notes, student survivors of sexual violence confront a variety of barriers in continuing with their education, transferring schools, and repaying their student debt. Survivors of violence often have lower GPAs, lower graduation rates, and face various difficulties accessing graduate school or employment opportuni
As student loan payments resume for 40 million Americans, the onerous task of restarting payments is complicated by a painful reality; they are paying interest on the cost of their rape. For the 13% of students who experience sexual violence during their college experience, the already high cost of higher education is compounded by more than $122,000, the average direct cost of rape.
Costs associated with sexual violence in college pile up. Scholarships lost from having a lower GPA. The loss of wages from a campus job. A broken leave. A transfer fee. A moving truck. STI testing and a lifetime of treatment. A SANE exam. Plan B. Endless out-of-pocket therapy. For those who are unable to complete their degree, the cost of rape is compounded by debt for a degree they could not finish. There are also costs that can’t be quantified: dimming of joy, difficulty trusting others, and a general lack of ease in your own body. Every survivor of violence has a ghost ship, another life passing in the night, a version of themselves without this harm.
Right now, student survivors pay for the direct costs of their victimization. They lose opportunities and easy hours of dorm room chatter. They then continue to pay for their unchosen experience with higher tuition payments, more debt and diminished economic opportunities to repay their debt. There is a cruel irony in these costs. Higher education is supposed to be an economic catalyst. For student survivors, it becomes a dragnet.
Seven years ago, I observed this economic and emotional toll on my campus — how I and other students harbored stories, went into debt, or dropped out. This financial destabilization occurs precisely while students are at the precipice between economic vulnerability and potential stability. Violence corrodes the economic and vocational missions of higher education and contributes to broader gender economic inequity. Until we address the costs of sexual violence for college students, we will never fully cross the gender wealth chasm. To quote Rebecca Solnit in her book Recollections of My Non-Existence “we cannot imagine what an earth without this ordinary, ubiquitous damage would look like, but I suspect that it would be dazzlingly alive.”
Importantly, there are measures institutions can take while survivors are in school and after graduation. Adequate, flexible, wrap-around services can help students recover, maintain their courseload, and graduate. I know this first hand. I co-founded The Survivor Fund: a financial care program at the University of Denver. We have since distributed more than $21,000 directly to student survivors of sexual violence. Funding helps cover basic needs, from emergency housing to changing locks to counseling sessions. Students on every campus need this type of support. In the absence of large-scale student loan relief, the impact of sexual violence on borrowers must be considered and addressed. Campuses across the country can and should create their own Survivor Fund for students. Expanding this infrastructure of care will support student survivor success and enrich us all.
We will pay our tuition. We will pay our dues. We will even pay for that ridiculously expensive textbook we will only open one time. We shouldn’t have to pay for our rape.