- Tasmiha Khan is a career development awardee of the American Association of University Women, has an MA in social impact from Claremont Lincoln University, and is Muslim American.
- Despite being accepted into graduate programs at Yale, Columbia, and Johns Hopkins, Khan was forced to turn down these offers due to a mandate in her faith that prohibits taking on interest-bearing loans.
- The exorbitant price tag of student loans — Khan says Johns Hopkins told her to take out $90,000 for one year of study — makes higher education unattainable for many students, especially Muslim Americans.
- Khan says there are several ways to address this issue, the first being to train financial aid advisors in the religious requirements of different faiths.
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As students all over the country recently began their new semesters, I couldn’t help but think back to a time when I was at the crossroads of choosing my next course of study after completing my undergraduate degree. Whether I stayed close to home or moved across the country, one thing I knew for sure at the time was that pursuing higher education wouldn’t be cheap.
For the many who can’t afford to pay out of pocket to go to college or graduate school, there’s the popular option to work with a financial aid officer to secure a financial aid package. But this “aid” can be misleading for students. Often you’re offered a package saddled with interest-bearing loans, which adversely affect students in the long run — and significantly contributes to the alarming amount of student loan debt in the US.
Worse, this financial model doesn’t address the religious restrictions that may limit certain students from using it. As a Muslim, I can’t take on interest-bearing loans because I follow the religious mandate from the Quran of staying away from interest. So, like many other Muslims, when it came to paying for school I had few options to choose from. I didn’t let that stop me from seeking higher education, and I had help along the way. But not every Muslim American out there has access to the support I had — and more importantly, the education system shouldn’t require them to.
I graduated from Wesleyan University with a BA in neuroscience, behavior, and psychology in 2012. When I went to orientation my first year, I remember meeting with the school’s financial aid advisor, Sean Martin, and explaining that I was the daughter of a single immigrant mother and would be the first in my family to attend a university in the United States. I remember initially feeling like the only visibly Muslim hijabi student on campus, and it was nerve-racking to say the least.
But in the end, acknowledging my religious identity and personal background allowed me to have one of the best educational experiences I could imagine. Sean was a kind soul and saw my struggle and acknowledged it — he told me he’d do the best he could to make sure I could attend Wesleyan. Every year before the financial aid package was awarded, I anxiously signed on to my student portal to see what was in store. Like clockwork, Sean made it possible for me to attend all four years at Wesleyan, and I was fortunate to graduate without any interest-bearing loans — thanks additionally to outside scholarships and completing work-study.
After graduating from Wesleyan, I decided I wanted to continue my education — and naively, I thought there would be folks like Sean who would find ways to accommodate me. I rigorously applied to programs and ended up with acceptances in hand from Yale, Columbia, and Johns Hopkins graduate schools, but regretfully had to turn them all down because the only option for financial aid included interest-bearing loans. For Johns Hopkins, I even deferred my admission in the hopes that the following year I would be awarded a better package with more scholarships. But even then, I was asked to take out $90,000 in federal loans, for a one-year program. Like the rest, I declined the offer.
Education isn’t the only arena in which many Muslims are finding themselves stuck when it comes to the American loan system — for example, Muslims face similar issues in the housing market, The New York Times reported in 2005, due to the interest that comes with traditional mortgage arrangements. Consequently, the NYT found, Islamic financing has opened up as an option for those who’d like to purchase a home without interest, even though it may require higher costs in other areas.
The American loan system needs to be more Muslim-friendly — and I am hopeful that as a nation we can advance to be inclusive of Muslims’ needs.
When looking back at my own example, I’m thankful that I was able to secure a generous scholarship package and outside grants from external organizations such as American Association of University Women (AAUW) that allowed me to complete my MA in social impact from Claremont Lincoln University.
Other organizations — like A Continuous Charity (ACC), a nonprofit designed to help Muslims secure interest-free loans, and the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA), which provides interest-free loans for graduate school — are also helping to provide alternative options for Muslims restricted from dealing with interest.
But more efforts need to be made to support such an endeavor — preferably from within the education system itself. Training financial aid counselors and advisors in the religious stipulations that many of us hold is a great place to start.
When I tried to speak to financial aid officers in the past, particularly before completing graduate school, it felt like a black hole. At Claremont, I realized that I am my own best advocate. If I can’t stand up for myself, no one will. Change has to come from within, and I am grateful for the opportunities given to me.
Tasmiha Khan has an MA in social impact from Claremont Lincoln University and is a career development awardee of the American Association of University Women. Follow Khan @CraftOurStory to learn more.