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The unexpected links between climate change, student debt and lower lifetime earnings

Climate-driven disasters are getting more frequent. They can be particularly destabilizing for college-age people who are in socially and financially formative years. Here, debris piled outside a home after a massive flood in Baton Rouge, La., in 2016.
Zhang Chaoqun
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Xinhua News Agency via Getty Images
Climate-driven disasters are getting more frequent. They can be particularly destabilizing for college-age people who are in socially and financially formative years. Here, debris piled outside a home after a massive flood in Baton Rouge, La., in 2016.

In August 2016, Maameefua Koomson had just moved into her dorm at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge. Sophomore year was shaping up to be excellent. Koomson was a strong student, she was pursuing her dream of studying creative writing, and she had landed a plum job as a resident assistant, or RA, in an honors dorm.

"I was, like, I'm going to be the best RA to these freshmen," she remembers. "I did a Sponge Bob-themed hall. I had events planned out."

And then, just a few days before classes began, it started to rain. At first it seemed like just another rainstorm in a part of the country where heavy rain is normal. But then it turned into something else entirely. A record-shattering deluge that drowned much of the greater Baton Rouge area in multiple feet of floodwater.

Koomson's dorm stayed dry. But her family's home in nearby Denham Springs was destroyed. It was one of more than 100,000 local homes damaged in the flood.

"I mean, they lost completely everything," Koomson says. "The whole house had to be gutted out."

And even though Koomson wasn't living at home anymore, the disaster affected her college experience, and her broader life, in profound and lasting ways. Within a year, she had lost her RA job and changed her major. By the time she graduated, her ideas about what career opportunities were open to her had shifted dramatically, with long-term financial and personal consequences.

New research suggests Koomson's experience is common. As severe floods, wildfires and hurricanes become more frequent due to climate change, economists and sociologists are beginning to study the effects of those disasters on people who are in financially and socially formative college years. And the results are sobering.

Disasters lead to lower grades and more student loan debt

Students whose families live in ZIP codes where there was a severe weather disaster get worse grades than their peers, are more likely to withdraw from difficult courses, and ultimately are more likely to default on their student loans after they graduate, according to a recent study that examined college students all over the country.

And students need not be directly affected by the disaster in order to suffer, the study found. For example, a student going to school in New York might struggle after a fire burned down their family home in California.

Poorer academic performance and more trouble paying off student loans can have long-term effects, says Han Xia, an associate professor of finance at the University of Texas at Dallas and one of the authors of the study. "[It] can have a spillover effect on pretty much every aspect of the person's life going forward, including their potential income, their employment opportunities, their opportunities for job advancement and eventually their finances," he explains.

Smoke from the 2018 Camp Fire, which destroyed Paradise, Calif., darkens the sky above Butte College. Many colleges and universities are changing the way they support students after disasters, in an effort to keep students enrolled and on track for graduation.
Don Thompson / AP
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AP
Smoke from the 2018 Camp Fire, which destroyed Paradise, Calif., darkens the sky above Butte College. Many colleges and universities are changing the way they support students after disasters, in an effort to keep students enrolled and on track for graduation.

Earlier research found that people struggling to pay off student loans are more likely to delay starting businesses, buying homes and even having children, Xia says. So if weather disasters cause college students to carry more debt burden, that can ripple through other parts of their lives for years.

And disasters can also keep students from entering college in the first place, according to another recent study. It found that students who are on the cusp of going to college when a disaster hits are less likely to enroll, potentially leading to lower long-term earnings.

That study focused on Houston-area students who were affected by flooding from Hurricane Harvey in 2017. It showed that students in blue collar neighborhoods with relatively few college graduates were the most likely to forgo college after the storm.

"That really indicates to me that these are first-generation prospective students who are most affected, in terms of whether or not they decide to go on to college," says Emily Gallagher, an assistant professor of finance at the University of Colorado, Boulder and an author of the study.

Taken together, the new studies suggest that extreme weather has lasting financial implications for college-age Americans, especially those for whom college is already a financial stretch.

"The financial loss piece for me is the most critical," says Vincent Carales, who studies higher education at the University of Houston. "College is barely affordable for anyone." A disaster can be the difference between affordable, and not.

Floodwaters from Hurricane Katrina fill the streets of New Orleans in August 2005. The city is home to multiple colleges and universities, most of which sustained damage.
David J. Phillip / AP
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AP
Floodwaters from Hurricane Katrina fill the streets of New Orleans in August 2005. The city is home to multiple colleges and universities, most of which sustained damage.

It's easy for college students to slip through the cracks

Despite their vulnerability, college students often fall through the cracks when it comes to disaster assistance. Typically, such aid provides people with money for shelter and other basic needs. But it doesn't offer tuition support. There's also no assistance with transportation to and from classes if students are displaced by the disaster and must commute long distances to get to campus.

David Armstead remembers the feeling of being forgotten. He was seven days into his freshman year at the University of New Orleans when Hurricane Katrina struck in August 2005.

The storm completely changed his life. He evacuated, his home was damaged, and he was displaced for more than a year. He says college students were overlooked in the chaos of the recovery.

"They were talking about getting the kids in school, getting folks jobs," he remembers.

The message he received from adults in his community was that he, too, should get a job and give up on his dream of going to college. "I was really heartbroken," he says. "I didn't feel like anyone had my back, like anyone really cared about me and my education and my future."

Armstead fought to keep his dream alive. He enrolled briefly at a university in Minnesota with the financial help of his church, but it was barely affordable. A stroke and his recovery from it made it financially untenable for him to continue.

It's been a long road for him to build a life and a career that he's proud of. Today, he serves people with HIV in New Orleans. Now, at age 37, he's planning to go back to school to finish his college degree. He says more financial help would have gone a long way back when he was 18 or 19 and was just a kid trying to get the education he knew he deserved.

"It would have been incredible," he says. "It would have been a burden off my shoulders, for figuring out how I would be paying for books or a laptop or all of these things. Because I didn't have it at all."

Carales, who studies college affordability, says timely financial assistance for college students can make a huge difference for those who don't have family wealth to fall back on. He says in recent years, extreme weather and the coronavirus pandemic together pushed many colleges and universities to rethink how they get money into the hands of students after disasters.

For example, after recent hurricanes, some colleges and universities have made financial aid available earlier than they would have, to give students more flexibility if they were displaced or were helping family members who lost homes or cars. In many cases, additional emergency funds are also available to students.

The key is to remove barriers for students to access funds, Carales says. He and a colleague interviewed community college students who stayed in school despite being affected by Hurricane Harvey in 2017. "What our participants told us was 'I don't have time to fill out a form. I was dealing with finding a place to work. Finding transportation. I had to take the bus to get to class. If you make this easier for me, I'm more likely to go in and request that assistance,'" Carales says.

Hundreds of students were affected by a devastating wildfire in Lahaina, HI in August 2023. The University of Hawai'i Maui College gave affected students emergency funds immediately.
Ryan Kellman / NPR
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NPR
Hundreds of students were affected by a devastating wildfire in Lahaina, Hawaii, in August 2023. The University of Hawai'i Maui College gave affected students emergency funds immediately.

Timely financial assistance can make a big difference

The power of timely financial assistance for college students was on display after devastating wildfires hit the Hawaiian town of Lahaina last year.

"The fires took place on August 8th. By the 9th, we already knew that we had 200 students who lived in the affected ZIP codes in Lahaina," says Lui Hokoana, the chancellor of the University of Hawai'i Maui College.

Almost half of those students had lost everything, Hokoana says. "They didn't have a computer. They didn't have the books that they bought. They didn't have a permanent living situation."

The school staff did a few things to help students immediately. First, using a private grant, they deposited money directly into the accounts of affected students. They didn't make them fill out a lengthy application or jump through hoops to prove that they needed assistance. "What we discovered was they really needed that money, and not only to support themselves, but for their extended families," he says. "To find someplace to live, to get something to eat, and so forth."

They also kept the campus open longer hours as a safe space for students who had been displaced. And they adjusted curricula so that students could help with the fire recovery and still build credits toward graduation – for example, by preparing meals for their displaced neighbors through the culinary program.

"They had a need to be of service to their community," Hokoana explains. "They didn't have a place to live, but they came to class because they knew they'd be able to cook food to send out to the Lahaina victims." He still gets emotional talking about it, because it was so moving to see students finding meaning in serving their community.

The college has seen about a 20% drop in enrollment among affected students, Hokoana says. While that's a substantial dip, it also means most students are still showing up, despite the enormous barriers.

Residents escape from flooded homes in September 2022, after heavy rains from Hurricane Ian flooded an apartment complex near the University of Central Florida.
Joe Burbank / Orlando Sentinel/Tribune News Service via Getty Images
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Orlando Sentinel/Tribune News Service via Getty Images
Residents escape from flooded homes in September 2022, after heavy rains from Hurricane Ian flooded an apartment complex near the University of Central Florida.

Climate-driven disasters can shape everything from career prospects to self-identity

The ultimate goal, Hokoana says, should be to help students not just survive after a disaster, but thrive, and find meaning in whatever field they're pursuing.

That's something Maameefua Koomson, in Baton Rouge, thinks about a lot. Almost 10 years after the flood, she's been reflecting on its lasting effects on some of her biggest life decisions.

"It's so odd," she says. "It's one of those things you don't realize impacts you long-term until you really sit in it."

When Koomson started college, she was studying creative writing. "I was ready to go be a professor, or just pursue being an author."

But the flood changed her career trajectory dramatically.

First, there was the immediate financial toll of her family's destroyed home. "I was trying to reduce how much I was spending from my financial aid so I could give it to my family to help them recover," she remembers.

The family car had also been destroyed, so Koomson was lending her car to her parents, using it to run errands for them and pick up her little sister. It was too much, on top of her classes and full-time job as an RA. She started missing classes, missing meetings and ended up losing her job as an RA after just one semester. That meant she also lost her subsidized room and board, and her income.

All of a sudden, she had more bills and less money. She was scrimping, skipping meals. And it affected her grades.

"I was struggling really badly," she remembers. She had been a strong student. "That semester was the lowest GPA I ever had. I was getting D's, failing tests. That version of that student I was coming in, being strong and balancing everything, was gone."

In that first year or so after the flood, she says she felt like a shell of herself, in survival mode. Once things stabilized financially, she says she had a lot of catching up to do academically. She spent the rest of the time in college trying to repair her GPA so she could apply to graduate school.

When she graduated, she was accepted into a competitive creative writing master's program. On paper, she was on track to achieve her dream of being an author or professor. But her experiences after the flood had changed her. Ultimately, she decided to pursue a graduate degree in business instead.

"I think that situation really did have an impact on how I viewed finances and money," she reflects. "Do I want to change my career field to something that's maybe more lucrative, or can give me guaranteed higher pay? So I know that I'm always ready for a flood or a bad hurricane."

Today, Koomson owns a social media marketing business. She says she likes what she does. But it also makes her sad to think about her more creative dreams that remain out of reach.

"Maybe someday," she says of being an author. "These are still things I aspire to do."

Anjana Nair in Baton Rouge, La., contributed to this story.


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Rebecca Hersher (she/her) is a reporter on NPR's Science Desk, where she reports on outbreaks, natural disasters, and environmental and health research. Since coming to NPR in 2011, she has covered the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, embedded with the Afghan army after the American combat mission ended, and reported on floods and hurricanes in the U.S. She's also reported on research about puppies. Before her work on the Science Desk, she was a producer for NPR's Weekend All Things Considered in Los Angeles.

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