Debt VS. Wealth: The Weight And Reality Of Student Loans In Black America

September 1, 2015  |  

Photo by Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post via Getty Images

Gregory, a 36-year-old dentist in Houston, TX, has over $400,000 in student loan debt. It’s a hefty bill, but he has a great career to show for it. Amanda is the assistant account manager of valet in Nashville, TN. She is just over $25,000 in debt and went to school for psychology, while Bilal is close to $200,000 in debt as he finishes his Master’s Degree in Urban Planning at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, NY and works as a housing specialist.

The individuals above show a very small, but very real picture of the student loan debt Black Americans face when trying to get ahead. Receiving a college education was once looked upon as the great equalizer in America. However, African American families are taking much longer to actualize this dream as more Black students depend on student loans than any other group in America.

According to the Urban Institute, over 40 percent of African American families had student loan debt in 2013 compared to only 28 percent of white families. We spoke with financial experts, Historically Black College and University (HBCU) funds and researchers to get a clear picture of the state of student loans in Black America and how we can successfully move from debt to wealth.

“The best way to address student debt disparities in Black families is to end employment discrimination and housing discrimination that keep African Americans from accumulating wealth,” said Sara Goldrick-Rab, a professor at the University of Wisconsin, Madison and the lead author of “The Color of Student Debt.”

Last fall, Goldrick-Rab and her team took a serious look at racial disparities among student loan borrowers and found that the median wealth of white families is $124,000 compared to $16,000 for Black families, causing more and more Black students to depend on loans.

When Gregory went off to college, he had very little help from his family as he was the first to pursue higher education. Now, even with a great career, managing life and kids is no easy task. The dentist, who graduated from Clark Atlanta University and Meharry Medical College, allocates 55 percent of his income to student loans. “I feel overwhelmed,” Gregory told us. “I want to go back to specialize but that would put me in more debt. At the same time I would be making more so I’m actually able to live right; it’s hard.”

According to experts such as Charlene Crowell of the Center for Responsible Lending, the first step in deciding whether to take on students loans is knowing what to look out for.

“The most important thing to ask is ‘will this instruction give me entry into a middle class life?’ That must be a very sober discussion along with what students are naturally drawn to. Students must make a thoughtful decision before the debt,” said Crowell.

While Gregory has the pay advantage that comes along with studying in the medical field, other students are not so lucky to end up with high paying jobs connected to their given field, especially those that focus outside of science, technology, engineering and math.

Does that mean more students need to switch majors? Certainly not; however both Crowell and Goldrick-Rab agree that real research must be done to make sure chosen schools align with desired jobs and the income thereafter.  This is especially true considering more and more African American students are not only taking out large student loans, but are less likely to complete all four years of college.

Goldrick-Rab lived in West Philadelphia and remembers watching younger siblings see their brothers and sisters off to college. “They looked up to them and they want to know what’s going to happen – but if you go and take on debt, drop out and you come back with no degree, the younger sibling looks at you like ‘I’m not doing that.”

Johnny C. Taylor, president of the Thurgood Marshall College Fund (TMCF) has this same concerns.

“The more and more our financially-constrained black families hear college is too expensive or not worth it, the more we reduce the pipeline of future black college graduates. There is a real risk we could wake up 10 years from now and face a reality [of employers saying] ‘We really can’t find enough qualified black candidates for jobs.’ Even well-intentioned employers can’t increase their diversity in the future if diverse talent is in short supply,” noted Taylor.

The TMCF is currently working with all 2016 presidential candidates to increase non-loan options in hopes of making college more accessible for all. However, the responsibility to incite change does not solely fall on those in higher education, but from everyday African Americans who are suffering the most.

“We need to be concerned and make this an election issue. Decide, I’m going to talk to my local community about getting scholarships together. I’m going to get really informed about all of the options to make sure my kids chose the right college and financial structure,” said Goldrick-Rab.

Goldrick-Rab and her team have recommended that the age-old Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) undergoes a serious rewriting. Instead of deciding a family’s need based on income, the professors believe the FAFSA should focus on family wealth to create a better picture of who really needs help. But this is just one recommendation, as Goldrick-Rab also believes the FAFSA could be done away with altogether.

“I think we should dramatically simplify the entire system, get rid of the application for financial aid and just make college affordable period.”

Last year, Goldrick-Rab and her colleagues wrote a proposal to make the Associate’s Degree free at all public universities.

“In our proposal it doesn’t actually cost any new money, it involves a reallocation of existing money. We say stop funding the private sector and focuses solely on the public. If you reallocate the funds to the public sector and stop paying for the fourth, fifth, and sixth years of college and we just fund the first two – we have enough money to do it right now,” said Goldrick-Rab.

But what happens to the many Black graduates who have already accrued thousands of debt? Author and CEO Tiffany “The Budgetnista” Aliche creator of the Live Richer Challenge said it’s time to focus more on wealth than debt.

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