(iStock)

Older African Americans and college students with children disproportionately bear the burden of education debt, according to a pair of reports released this week that researchers say show the need for more nuanced solutions from higher education.

Americans over age 50 collectively hold $247 billion in outstanding federal education loans, an amount that has grown threefold since 2003, policy analysts at the Urban Institute found. The impact of that debt differs depending on whether borrowers took out the loan for themselves or for family members, according to a report released Thursday by the think tank.

Using Federal Reserve data, researchers found borrowers who took out loans to pay for their own education are more likely to be behind on payments or say they feel financially insecure compared with those who borrowed on behalf of relatives.

Socioeconomics play an important role, with wealthier people more likely to hold education debt for a child or grandchild. Only 2 percent of all older adults earning more than $100,000 a year hold debt for their own education, but 13 percent have loans tied to their children or grandchildren.

The researchers found older African Americans are three times as likely to hold education debt for themselves compared to their white counterparts.

It is difficult to say exactly why this dichotomy exists, but Kristin Blagg, a research associate at the Urban Institute and co-author of the report, suspects persistent racial inequality is a contributing factor.

Demos, a liberal think tank, and the Institute on Assets and Social Policy at Brandeis University found African Americans are far more likely to have student debt, regardless of income. Black families, after decades of being shut out of traditional ladders of economic opportunity, have the fewest resources to cover the costs of college or to protect against the risk of borrowing.

Blagg points to a recent study from the Center for American Progress think tank showing nearly half of African American borrowers who started college in the 2003-2004 academic year defaulted within 12 years after entering school.

That study also found three-quarters of black borrowers who defaulted during that period dropped out of for-profit colleges. Black students have long filled the rosters at for-profit colleges, leaving Blagg to suspect that some of the debt held by older African Americans may be rooted in the popularity of such schools in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

“There were a lot of fly-by-night schools back then, and a lot of this debt may be really old debt,” she said. “This debt could just be continually rolled over, and low-income borrowers are struggling to pay it off.”

Understanding the complexities of debt among older borrowers could encourage more direct marketing of repayment plans designed to keep borrowers current on their loans, known as income-driven repayment plans, Blagg said.

While younger college graduates may be aware of income-driven repayment plans, Blagg said older borrowers may not be as familiar. Keeping older borrowers in good standing on their loans is especially important because defaulting could result in the federal government garnishing their Social Security.

Another report found that among college students with children, federal policy could help reduce defaults, according to Colleen Campbell, associate director for postsecondary education at the Center for American Progress. Almost half of those borrowers who began college in the 2003-2004 school year defaulted within 12 years of enrolling, based on data from the Department of Education. That’s double the rate of borrowers without children.

There are about 4.8 million undergraduates who have children and over half borrow to pay for college. Many of them are women of color, and most enroll in community and for-profit colleges. Only one-third of undergraduate students with children complete a credential within six years of enrolling. And those who drop out with student loans are at higher risk for defaulting.

“These students are not just likely borrowing more — and are more unprepared by their high schools — but enrolling in lower quality institutions or open access institutions that may not have the resources to support them,” she said.

Child care is critical in helping students with children complete their degree, but federal funding for campus-based child care has not kept pace with demand. What’s more, President Trump proposed eliminating the primary campus child care program, Child Care Access Means Parents in School, in his first budget. Senate lawmakers saved the program and maintained the $15 million funding, but advocates say that is not enough to meet the needs of students with children.

A survey of nearly 100 administrators at campus child care centers found 95 percent of centers at two- and four-year colleges maintained a waiting list with an average of 82 children, according to the Institute for Women’s Policy Research. That is if they actually had a child care center: Barely half of four-year state colleges and universities provide child care, compared with 55 percent in 2003. The decline is steeper at community colleges, where only 44 percent of schools offer services, down from 53 percent 14 years ago, according to the women’s policy institute. 

“When students don’t have access to child care, workforce development, affordable health care, all of those things affect their success,” Campbell said. “And they are ultimately affecting students we should be caring about the most because they need the opportunities that postsecondary education affords.”