By Julianne Malveaux
Graduations are an exciting time for most families. They will throng to auditoriums, gymnasiums, churches, or outdoor settings bearing flowers, balloons, and other goodies. They’ll likely go to lunch or dinner and share smiles and memories, congratulating the graduate on her achievement. Then what?
About four million people will receive degrees, from associate to doctorate. Too many of them, though, will walk from the graduation stage to a debt trap. Those who have student loans must start paying them six months after graduation or if their enrollment status falls below half-time. Though student loan repayment was suspended (not forgiven) during COVID, payments must resume by September 1. Borrowers must repay whether they are employed or not. Although loan servicers will sometimes adjust loan terms with modified repayment plans.
Twenty-seven million Americans have student loan debt, totaling more than $1.7 billion. One in four Black women carries such obligation, the highest proportion of any population subgroup. Black women owe more than others. And college-educated Black women earn less than other college-educated people, with Black women with a bachelor’s degree earning just $60,000 a year, compared to $75,000 for Black men, $67,000 for white women, and $91,000 for white men.
The Education Trust, a Washington, DC-based think tank, produced a report, How Black Women Experience Student Debt, attributes the heavy debt burden Black women carry to unequal pay, the wealth gap, and flawed public policy. When we look at the debt through the lens of recent college graduates, it is essential to note that Black women’s unemployment rates may make loan repayment difficult.
If repayment is difficult, failure to pay will adversely affect a credit score, limiting the ability to rent an apartment or purchase a home. In some cases, a low credit score may even limit employment possibilities. If you can’t work, you can’t repay your student loans, but if you can’t repay your student loans, you can’t work. While this situation is challenging for everyone, it is much worse for Black women.
Twelve years after leaving college, Black women owe 13 percent more on their loans than when they graduated, while white men have paid back 44 percent of their loans. Black women end up owing more because interest piles up when they haven’t made their loan payments on time, and the unpaid interest adds to the already high debt. And because education is so highly valued among many Black women, a disproportionate number of black women who earn doctorates earn them from costly for-profit colleges, offer little financial aid, and often have few student support services.
Some Black women graduate with six-figure debt to earn a doctorate that may only result in low-paid adjunct faculty employment when they compete against others with more traditional credentials.
President Biden promised to alleviate student debt, but he hasn’t done it yet. Postponing the repayment date only delays the inevitable. Repayments resume just two months before the midterm elections. Has the President considered the fact that his failure to act may impact the composition of Congress in 2022? On the other hand, loan forgiveness might encourage some younger people to get out and vote because they’ve seen a return on their 2020 vote.
The wealth gap has always been with us, and public policy sometimes makes the gap even wider than it needs to be. Why can’t students have the same low-interest loans as banks? Why can’t students have the same loan forgiveness as some businesses during COVID? Why do we encourage students to pursue higher education, then penalize them with high costs of attendance and expensive loans. Community colleges and state universities are low-cost, not no cost. Yet the students who are enrolled in college are not only investing in themselves but in the future of our country.
If we value an educated workforce, we must rethink how we both fund higher education and pay for it. By necessity, COVID has provided us with different options. When students and parents push back on high costs and the crushing burden of student loans, higher education leaders will be forced to offer other alternatives. Meanwhile, Black women, passionate believers in the power of higher education, pay a very high price to pursue their passion. Something to consider as we celebrate graduations.
Dr. Julianne Malveaux is an economist, author, and Dean of the College of Ethnic Studies at Cal State LA. Juliannemalveaux.com