Opinion: Cancel All The Student Debt. It’s About Economic And Racial Justice

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Written by Ann Brown
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Student debt, say the authors, should be wiped clean. If not, racial economic inequality will continue in the United States.

Naomi Zewde, an Assistant Professor in the Graduate School of Public Health & Health Policy at the City University of New York, and Darrick Hamilton, co-author of “Beyond Broke: Why Closing the Racial Wealth Gap is a Priority for National Economic Security,” think student debt should be wiped clean. If not, racial economic inequality will continue in the United States.

“Black students bear a particularly heavy financial burden from higher education. Because of their families’ likely financial position, which is rooted in a persistent unjust racial wealth gap, Black students often take on more debt than white students and have less family resources to pay off that debt, the two wrote in an opinion piece for Rewire.

Student loan debt crisis has been one of the main issues of the Democratic presidential candidates — all with different solutions, from free education for all to cancellation of student debt for households with under $100,000 in income.

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“Only full cancellation completely protects the vulnerabilities of Black students and students in general, while at the same time establishing higher education as a universal right and offering restitution to all those who have had to rely on debt finance,” they wrote.

There is no denying that there is a racial gap when it comes to student loan debt. Black students tend to bear a heavier financial burden when seeking higher education. There are various reasons for this –their families’ likely financial position, which is “rooted in a persistent unjust racial wealth gap”; if they attend a for-profit school; among other reasons.  

On average, Black graduates owe $53,000 four years after graduation. If the debt cancellation that some candidates are proposing of $50,000, the average Black student would obviously owe a lot less. 

The average white graduate carries debt below $30,000. The proposed debt cancellation would erase all their debt.

So, in the end, this debt cancellation proposal will not rid Black graduates of all their debt as it would do for their white counterpoints.

“Some critics have expressed skepticism, arguing that full cancellation would be racially regressive, benefiting white borrowers more than Black borrowers. The argument goes that more debt probably indicates a graduate or professional degree, which white students are more likely to obtain. In that case, wouldn’t a full cancellation of the higher levels of debt, above $50,000, really just help white students? Similar critiques have been offered for the partial relief program and are exaggerated for full cancellation. The first problem with this argument is that a large and growing share (47 percent in 2008) of Black students enroll in a graduate degree program within four years of completing their bachelor’s, which is higher than the rate for white recent graduates,” Zewde and Hamilton wrote.

But according to the two, the racial wealth gap doesn’t explain the full issue of student loan debt inequality.

“The real problem with the racial wealth gap argument is that it confuses the urgent problem of student debt with the urgent problem of racially unequal access to capital. Relieving student debt is not the policy tool for eliminating the racial wealth gap. The racial wealth gap has a great deal more to do with a lack of assets for Black families than an abundance of debt on the part of Black students and graduates. The fact that Black families headed by a college graduate have less wealth than white families headed by a high school dropout is not driven by student debt. That inequity stems from the insufficient assets of the Black community, regardless of education. The young Black person will start out in a less favorable economic position than their white peers, whatever their student debt. Neither a full nor a limited cancellation changes those roots of the racial disparity in assets,” they wrote.

Still, the pair see some hope in the debt cancellation proposals, even if they don’t fully rid the average Black student of their debt in total. 

“Black Americans are highly motivated to pursue education, but the reality is that as a group, they are financially stymied. Fewer Black students begin college, even fewer graduate, and those that do graduate carry much more debt than their white counterparts. While student debt has conventionally been thought of as ‘good debt,’ the investment generates widely disparate rates of return by race within the prevailing social framework that subjects Black people to inferior housing and educational products, predatory finance, and labor market discrimination. These, along with other reasons, are why we enthusiastically applaud proposals that remove the financial stress and social and psychological stigma associated with the burden of tuition and fees at public universities and community colleges, for all students,” Zewde and Hamilton concluded.