Panel: Addressing Black Student Debt Requires Unique Focus

By Owen Daugherty, NASFAA Staff Reporter

The way the higher education community thinks about student debt, and student debt of Black borrowers in particular, needs reimagining to no longer blame the individual, but instead focus on what problems within the system lead to such discrepancies in education outcomes and debt loads. 

That was the conclusion of a panel of experts present Wednesday for a webinar hosted by the Lumina Foundation.

"Personal responsibility politics towards graduation are damaging students' future," said Tiffany Loftin, national director for the Youth and College Division at the NAACP. Meanwhile, she added that touting financial literacy continues to put the onus on the students, while there remains a lack of accountability on institutions and systemic issues that may impact student outcomes.

The panel, titled “(Re)Thinking Black Student Debt,” touched on several of the persistent stressors that disproportionately impact Black student loan borrowers, and how the ongoing pandemic caused by the novel coronavirus is exacerbating some of the issues.

Speaking to the financial literacy narrative that so often gets associated with Black borrowers, Ernest Ezeugo, formerly of the National Campus Leadership Council, said “you can only be so financially literate when you have to make hard decisions — basic necessity decisions like if I have enough money to eat or to feed my family.”

Dominique J. Baker, assistant professor of education policy at Southern Methodist University, said student loans were once thought of as one of the many tools for students to pursue higher education, but now, for too many Black students, it is virtually the only option.

She attributed this shift to the fact that higher education is no longer funded at the levels it once was, mainly due to cuts at the state level, and the cost has been shifted to the students.

“Students have to find other ways to fund their education,” she said. “Essentially, passing on the debt to students, in particular Black students."

Loftin added that this trend adds to the cycle of poverty we see that impacts students of color more than white students, with Baker noting it affects wealth-building among Black students.

"The wealth-building that has been denied to Black families, coupled with the disinvestment in higher ed by states creates a scenario where Black students have to rely on student loans for the hope of future stability,” Baker said.

Tiffany Jones, senior director of higher education policy at the Education Trust, highlighted a study showing that even Black students who come from high-income families are roughly seven times more likely to default on their loans compared to their white peers, adding that people often conflate race and class.

“Low-income is not synonymous to Black,” she said. “There is a class issue and a race issue. Paying attention to class isn't going to solve this problem.”

Jones added that to bridge the gap, policymakers need to prioritize need-based aid over merit-based aid.

“For any policy framework on student debt, we need to ask, ‘How will this policy impact Black borrowers, specifically?’ … And not forget about students who didn’t graduate,” she said.

Jones added that while students of color borrow at modest rates overall, consumer protections are lacking, citing a study that showed more than 450,000 students were impacted by the closures of for-profit institutions. Of those students, nearly 60% were students of color.

And to make policymakers and legislators listen and be attentive to the issues of Black students and students of color, Ezeugo said more student voices are needed.

"The federal advocacy space doesn't need more paid professionals, we need more student voices,” he said, adding that campus and higher education leaders can foster a climate that encourages students to raise their voices in federal policymaking.
Additionally, to make informed policy decisions, Baker said better data on Black borrowers is needed.

”We can’t do a very good job of analyzing students’ experience with debt,” she said.

For the students with debt, Clifton said it’s important not to shame the borrowers saddled with debt. 

“We should empower them and encourage them to share their stories and show them how to navigate the system and create change,” she said.

 

Publication Date: 7/31/2020


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