The problem is especially acute for black college graduates, who have been disproportionately hit by the student debt crisis. So as college costs continue to outpace inflation, many experts worry that blacks are more likely to be shut out of the future middle class unless Congress confronts college affordability with more urgency.
The Federal Reserve reports that Americans now owe more on student loans than they do on credit cards or car loans. In 2011, the total student loan debt surpassed $1 trillion. According to The Project on Student Debt, about two-thirds of all college seniors graduated with loans in 2010. And more than 80 percent of blacks graduated with debt.
More than 60 percent of all jobs will require a college education. Indeed, 62 percent of the 37 million people holding student debt are between the ages of 18 and 39 years old. Of those, students of color are disproportionately buried with more student loans. And this debt can’t be discharged in bankruptcy.
The average American student debt is $28,000. And while the average debt of black students who borrow is just slightly more, 27 percent of black bachelor’s degree earners had more than $30,500 in debt compared to 16 percent for their white counterparts.
What does all this mean? Many students in pursuit of a four-year degree drop out of school as debt accumulates. The center reports that 69 percent of black students listed debt loads as a key reason for dropping out of college. For Hispanics, it’s 71 percent and for whites it’s 43 percent.
Some civil rights organizations see this crisis as a racial justice issue. Fifty years after the Civil Rights Movement, debt is slowing the social progress generally thought to come with a college degree. Historically, blacks have used education as an emancipatory and economic tool. Often holding steadfast to the belief that they had to be twice as good as their white competition, many sought a degree to certify their skills. That belief might account for the high number of black women attaining college and professional degrees.
Such effort on their part is not merely to seek validation but is a pragmatic maneuver for social mobility. According to the recent U.S. Census, more than 70 percent of single-family households in the black community are headed by black females. And they are doubly impacted by questionable lending practices in the subprime mortgage and student loan industries.
There are many parallels in the student loan debt crisis and the subprime housing crisis. Much like the housing crisis that disproportionately affected the poor and people of color, many private college loan providers market high-risk loans to the most vulnerable in urban communities because they are unaware of the more affordable federal options. And while there are low-interest federal loans and Pell grants, many students receive high-interest loans. About 47 percent of borrowers are in default of their loans.
Government must do more to curtail college cost. America cannot have a vibrant democracy and a robust economy with an uneducated populace. President Obama, who just recently paid off his own student loans, is obviously more sensitized to this issue. In April, he effectively put the brakes on interest rate hikes for Stafford Loans. But that’s not enough.
The president must bring “the fierce urgency of now” to bolster the work of the student loan ombudsman office of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, which is keenly aware that those affected by this issue are under 45, the middle class, poor whites, and people of color. The president should convey the message that Americans will see increased efforts from his administration to address this deepening crisis.
Amnesty for student loan debt would be extreme. But many will settle for debt relief programs as a sensible solution. And options that already exist need to be publicized more. Americans need both Democrats and Republicans to make it resoundingly clear that college affordability is not just a political imperative; it’s mandatory for America’s economic success.
Ann-Marie Adams is a race and education contributor to The RootDC. She is the founder of a hyper-local news site, The Hartford Guardian , which builds urban communities through civic journalism. Follow her on Twitter at @annmarieadams.
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