After she moved to Philadelphia two years ago to teach at Temple University, Sara Goldrick-Rab was struck by the fact that few in the city were talking about the growing student loan crisis.

Pennsylvania tops the nation for student-debt burden — at least 67 percent of Pennsylvania students have loans and the average debt per student is $36,193, according to LendEDU, a New Jersey-based student-loan refinancing company. And, the Keystone State is home to 33 of the top 100 public universities in the country with the most student debt.

“It’s striking to me that Philadelphia is not talking about student debt," she told the Inquirer. “In most parts of the country, the conversation is louder. It’s not quite the right conversation. Most of the talk about student debt is that debt is bad, and we need to deal with existing debt. To get rid of it. But I’m hoping we can host a different conversation — not just how did we get here, but how to keep more young people from debt as a consequence.”

So Goldrick-Rab is hosting a conversation, and everybody is invited. Students, parents, and anybody else wanting to learn more about the “epidemic” can attend the Wednesday, Jan. 16, town hall meeting, from 6 to 8 p.m. at the Temple Performing Arts Center (1837 N. Broad St.) in North Philadelphia, to discuss solutions to the growing college affordability problem.

Goldrick-Rab has made this issue her life’s work. She’s a professor of higher education policy and sociology at Temple, and founder of the Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice in Philadelphia, which seeks to reduce college student dropouts due to non-academic reasons such as poverty or lack of transportation.

Student loans, she points out, are epidemic, but aren’t the only cause of the college affordability crisis.

“The cause is that college tuition is unaffordable, housing is unaffordable, food is unaffordable. Debt isn’t the only cause of the crisis, it’s the consequence. I really focus on how people end up with debt in the first place – and keep that from happening. It’s not just complaining – we’re working toward solutions."

Other speakers at the town hall will include Michael Luna, student government president at Community College of Philadelphia; Seth Frotman, former ombudsman at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and founder of the Student Borrower Protection Center; Helen Gym, Philadelphia city councilwoman; Jeff Hornstein, executive director, Economy League of Greater Philadelphia; and Malcolm Kenyatta, Pennsylvania state representative and a Temple alum.

Goldrick-Rab has at various times advocated for reduced or free tuition, much like Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders. She is on the senator’s education policy panel.

"Free tuition is one piece of the puzzle. It’s a good piece. I don’t buy that it’s a giveaway,” she said.

Right after she moved to Philadelphia from Wisconsin, “Gov. Wolf invited me to a task force on college affordability. I went to Harrisburg excited. I did a task force in Wisconsin and we made some real concrete recommendations, like whether the state set up a work-study program to supplement federal work study. The state now has emergency aid for students in Wisconsin, and Scott Walker, the GOP governor, passed it.”

Sadly, she says, “the Pennsylvania task force disbanded. The education sector is divided. Schools like Temple and Pitt don’t feel they share common cause with the community colleges.”

In addition, “the state-related designation makes no sense. Philly needs to know we at Temple live or die by that state budget. so if you want student debt to go down, Temple and CCP need revenue restored.” Meanwhile, “the University of Pennsylvania is making all these promises to be affordable. But they’re not paying taxes appropriately and they have a huge endowment. For profits are moving in.”

After earning her Ph.D. at Penn, Goldrick-Rab won a professorship at the University of Wisconsin. And since then, the student loan crisis has grown to nearly $1.5 trillion at the end of 2018, growing faster than any other class of consumer debt, including auto loans and mortgages.

“Obviously it’s now affecting the middle class. I think that’s the one silver lining — when the middle class gets involved, stuff changes. The middle class has a lot to lose now.”

Where does she find is the biggest pocket of resistance in Philadelphia to change?

She acknowledges that in a high-poverty city, “Where does this fit in the list of priorities, given clear need for K-12 and early childhood education? Given the homeless crisis, why worry about homeless students? I’m struck by Philly’s many problems. I agree it’s hard to decide where to start. Every 3-year-old becomes a 17-year-old who wants to go to college. Their parents drop out too and have debt too.”

One solution she points to: This month, Goldrick-Rab went to Chicago to interview people who live in public housing there.

“They’re all trying to get out of poverty by going to college. They’re in their mid-30s. Two of them were 55. They keep saying ‘I can’t get out of poverty unless I go to college.’ Public housing made a partnership with community college whereby they can go for free. Why couldn’t the Philadelphia Housing Authority do something like that?"

Registration is not required to attend the Jan. 16 town hall. The event website has more information: https://realcollege.org/event/philly-town-hall-on-student-debt.