American artist Kelli Rae Adams’ installation Forever in Your Debt aims to help visualize the massive scale of America’s student loan problem despite President Joe Biden’s $10,000 pardon for debtors who earn less than $125,000 a year. 

Photograph of Kelli Rae Adams. Image courtesy of Halcyon House.

To do this, Adams has hand-thrown ceramic bowls to symbolize individual loaners. She then filled them up with loose change to show just how much money is required to pay off the cost of education in the United States, an amount that has historically been inflated due to an exploitative system. This makes her piece relevant to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal of Quality Education and Reduced Inequalities.

Adams, who has her own share of student debt due to her studies of ceramic arts, has chosen to represent the over 43 million Americans (whose total debt amounts to USD 1.7 trillion) as 925 individual bowls. Each hand-thrown bowl carries around $40 worth of change to represent the $37,000 average amount of each student’s debt. When displayed together, these bowls will fill up the floors of not only an entire room but also an entire gallery building.

Not all of Adams’ bowls are filled with change. She deliberately does this to encourage visitors to throw in some of their own loose change. This symbolizes Adams’ call to action, in which she compels her audiences to actively participate in the cause, either by donating to relevant organizations or by pushing lawmakers to find urgent solutions.

Visitors who wish to contribute even further can also donate their coins on Adams’ website to participate in the installation. Again, this is all a deliberate choice on Adams’ part to show that the American student debt problem requires collective public effort to solve.

The process of making Forever in Your Debt. Image courtesy of @kelliraeadams/Instagram.

According to data from the National Center for Education Statistics, in the 1968-1969 academic year, after being adjusted for inflation, it had cost $1,545 to attend a public, four-year institution in the United States. This number also included other fees and room and board. Should this cost of education grow solely based on inflation, the 2020-2021 school year would only cost around $12,000 a year. Yet, in reality, students in America now pay an average of $29,033 per year. 

A 2020 study by the Manhattan Institute found that a combination of internal administrative bloat, overbuilding of campus facilities, high-wage labour and easy access to student loans have been key factors behind the conflation of tuition fees in America. It has created decades of debt, with nearly a quarter of the total outstanding student debt belonging to people aged 50+ who are still trying to pay off their debt.

Forever in Your Debt by Kelli Rae Adams, exhibited at Halcyon Arts Lab’s By The People. Image courtesy of @kelliraeadams/Instagram.

This is why Adams’ piece Forever in Your Debt is necessary. It helps people understand that in today’s work environment, where college graduates receive substantially higher pay than those without, they must understand that these institutions have been taking advantage of students. They make them go into debt, which takes most people decades of their life to pay off

Find out more about Kelli Rae Adams’ Forever in Your Debt and their other pieces by checking their Instagram on @kelliraeadams.

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