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As my colleague recently wrote in U.S. News and World Report, there’s been growing disturbing evidence in recent years that student debt disproportionately harms non-white borrowers. Numerous studies have documented that African-Americans, Hispanics and other minorities borrow more often for postsecondary education, at higher amounts, and struggle more to repay the debt.
In fact, earlier this year the National Consumer Law Center filed a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Education seeking data on the impact of student debt on non-white borrowers.
More data on this vexing problem would certainly be welcome, but in the meantime there are steps we must take to educate communities of color on both the risks and rewards afforded by student loans. We certainly mustn’t persuade low-income and first generation students to shun all education debt, as student loans are often the only way they can afford college. (It’s a myth that the middle class, because they’re ineligible for the need-based Pell Grant, are the only ones forced to take on student debt. At public institutions, 84 percent of graduates who received a Pell Grant graduate with debt, compared with 46 percent of those who did not receive a Pell, according to Demos.)
What we can do, though, is better prepare minority students for the financial decisions and challenges that accompany the college financing process. We can help them better understand the importance of picking a college that is the right financial fit, by providing college planning that includes both an academic and financial plan for success. We can encourage them to think of the full cost to a degree, rather than approach financing on a semester to semester basis. And we can step up our advising and counseling around federal parent PLUS loans – a federal aid option designed to be a lifeline for college access but instead, for too many uninformed minority and low-income families, is becoming a financial noose.
We can also join forces with others in the higher education community to get the word out. That’s why I’m proud to announce that American Student Assistance has joined with the Thurgood Marshall College Fund on a new advocacy campaign, #intheblack, specifically targeted to Historically Black College and University (HBCU) students and parents.
The campaign will encourage the use of free tools and resources that promote on-time student loan repayment and overall financial literacy. ASA will be providing content for getintheblack.org, and I’ll be presenting at their student loan repayment advocacy and engagement conference in Washington, DC this September. Our Salt financial education program will also spread the word to all its HBCU partners, whose students and alumni have access to Salt’s tools and resources anytime to get a better handle on their debt.
Together, let’s get more students out of debt (in the red) and financially #intheblack. Because the color of your skin shouldn’t be a predictor of how much student debt will impact the rest of your life.