One of the major issues of the new presidential administration has been student debt cancellation. According to Federal Reserve estimates, Americans owed more than $1.7 trillion in student debt, pushing grassroots activists like Debt Collective and politicians like Bernie Sanders making cancellation a focal point.
Activists like Tylik McMillian, National Director of Youth and College for the National Action Network, are also calling on the White House to act on it, which would relieve millions of people who are already hurting under the weight of the pandemic. In this opinion piece for BET.com, he says it would also take significant pressure away from communities of color, relieving a major financial burden.
Sandra (who requested her last name remain anonymous) was a first-generation college student who had no knowledge of what attending school entailed or how she would even pay for her tuition. Decades after obtaining her degrees, she has a looming $265,000 student loan to pay back.
At age 66, a time when she should be enjoying retirement, she is burdened with debt. Sandra says she often asks herself if it would have been better if she never went to college at all, but her answer is still no. She recognizes that as a Black woman, she would not have been able to survive or compete for any jobs without her education. But she also says it would be a blessing to live out the remainder of her life without the burden of exorbitant student loan debt. Sandra’s story is just one of many.
Federal student debt cancellation is the kind of bold policy that we expect the Biden-Harris administration to deliver. Families need economic relief that meets the scale of this crisis, and for Black families, the situation is even more dire. Default rates for Black borrowers remain higher than those of their peers. Research according to the Center for American Progress shows that four out of five Black students take out loans to go to college. Canceling federal student debt is one of the most effective ways to provide direct relief.
“Black and Brown students across the country go to college because they believe it is the surest path to build a future for themselves and their families,” said Sen. Elizabeth Warren at a press conference in which she reintroduced a resolution to ask that $50,000 in student debt be forgiven. “They did everything right. But for millions of Black families, student debt is now just another gigantic roadblock between them building real wealth.”
Others including Rep. Ayanna Pressley joined Warren in bringing the resolution back to Congress. “Student loan cancellation is a matter of racial and economic justice across our country” said Pressley during a virtual conference held by the Consumer Federation of America.
Studies show that 86 percent of Black students assume loans for higher education, compared to fewer than seventy percent of their White peers. Additionally, Black graduates with a bachelor’s degree default at five times the rate of their white peers. The burden of debt discourages many students from even enrolling in college. In fact, 40 percent of borrowers with student loan debt do not even have a college degree.
This crisis is one I am all too familiar with personally; I am a young Black man who is drowning in student loan debt. As the National Director of Youth and College for National Action Network (NAN), I have spoken with countless people who are in the same situation. I understand that I am not the voice for my entire community, but the truth is Black people and families need help that meets the scale of this moment.
Education is one of many areas where our communities are hurting the most as the result of institutionalized racism. Now we have an opportunity to eliminate student-loan debt that would narrow the racial wealth gap and give folks an opportunity at upward mobility. Many of the students that NAN serves often can only attend these schools by taking out loans.
A Sobering Reality For Students
“No student should have to choose between their dreams and tens of thousands of dollars in student loan debt,” said Rick Hart, a senior at Atlanta’s Morehouse College said.
That sentiment was echoed by other students who have graduated and find themselves mired in debt. “After learning that the cost of college is more than he could afford out of pocket, applying and taking out loans was the best way to pursue his education,” said Blaine Lewis-Thompson a senior at Cheyney University in Pennsylvania.
Senam Okpattah, a graduate of the University of Maryland College Park agreed: “The burden of student loans determine the trajectory of your success personally and professionally.”
This is the reality for families – the reality of making ends meet, but also competing in a system that is stacked against you. A lot of times because of the racial wealth gap, student loans aren’t just used for books but used to bridge the money gap for housing, food and paying bills.
It is clear that education justice cannot be separated from the conversation about racial justice. While Black families continue to bear the brunt of this crisis, canceling federal student loans will be one way to deliver in this moment.