This is the first in a series about student loan debt and its impact on Black women.
My student loan debt is, quite literally, the cost of a house. In Atlanta, I could buy a very nice 4 bedroom, 2.5 bath home for less than what I owe to Great Lakes, the servicer handling my loan. I’ve never defaulted on it and have paid diligently every month for years. Sadly, it doesn’t seem to make a dent. Unless I win the lottery or suddenly get a job that pays me an obscene amount of money (fingers crossed!), this is debt that I will carry well into retirement.
This doesn’t make me unique. On the contrary, it makes me like a lot of Black women in America.
Student loan debt is a crisis in our country, with borrowers owing a whopping $1.5 trillion dollars. And, unfortunately, this crisis hits Black women the hardest.
Earlier this month, Dēmos, a public policy organization, released a report about the ways this debt impacts borrowers of color. They found that the challenge of paying back student loans severely impedes the quality of life for Black women. Not only does it impact our wages, access to secure employment, housing and child care, but our debt is also more likely to grow over time compared to white men and women and Black men.
Jillian Berman at MarketWatch breaks it down:
“Twelve years after entering college, white men have paid off 44% of their student-loan balance on average […] For white women, that share drops to 28%. For black borrowers, the picture is even bleaker. Black women see their loan balances actually grow 13% on average, 12 years after leaving school, while black men see their balances grow 11%.”
This is not by accident. And, because conservatives across the country continue to say that this is an issue of “personal responsibility”, we need to be clear that it’s not. Black women are not irresponsible with our money. Rather, this is reflective of race and privilege in American society.
In a recent op-ed in The Washington Post, Harry Williams, president and CEO of the Thurgood Marshall College Fund, wrote that Black students are 20 percent more likely than white students to need federal student loans for college. Additionally, we are less likely to be able to draw upon family resources when paying back our loans. But we also make less money in the workforce, which makes it difficult for us to pay loans back. Black women make less money than white men and white women, earning $0.63 for every dollar that white men make compared to $0.79 for white women.
Additionally, as Black women who are first-generation college students, we are also the heads of our households and/or are contributing to our families’ economic well-being. When we make it, it’s often up to us to help others in our lives along. Sure, we could always choose not to go to school. But getting an education is one way for us to get out of poverty. How many of us grew up with our parents and loved ones telling us that education was our ticket to success? I know I did. And while our families weren’t necessarily wrong, it turns out that they didn’t account for the massive student loan debt we’d need to take on in order to attend school.
As Mark Huelsman, associate director of policy and research at Dēmos notes, “Education is not in its own right the great equalizer and, if we add student debt on top of that, we may be making the problem worse.”
Luckily, this presidential election cycle has seen candidates take the issue of student loan debt seriously. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) has a plan to forgive all or at least some of the student loan debt for anyone earning less than $250,000 a year. She also wants to make tuition at public universities free. Wayne Messam, mayor of the Florida city of Miramar and a presidential candidate that you’ve likely not heard of, wants to cancel all student loan debt. Sen. Bernie Sanders is also a proponent of free college and wants to cap interest rates on both undergraduate and graduate student loans.
While nothing is guaranteed, electing a Democrat is our only hope of dealing with the student loan crisis and getting Black women some debt relief. One of the reasons that the primaries are so important is that we get the chance to ask candidates serious questions about their policy stances and how those will improve the lives of Black women. Anyone who wants the votes of Black women should have a plan for reducing our student loan debt. We deserve and need solutions now.
To learn more about a new plan in Congress to cancel student loan debt, click here.