The Color of Student Debt

“Racial disparities in student debt are closely related to the stark racial disparities in wealth characterizing American society.”

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Race-based differences in student loans are little understood and often ignored in debates about higher education financing.  New research might help us to change that.  Back in 2010, the College Board noted that 27 percent of black bachelor’s degree recipients had student-loan debt of $30,500 or more, compared with just 16 percent of white bachelor’s degree students.  Of those who borrow, black students have an average of over $4,000 more debt than white students.

In “The Color of Student Debt,” researchers lay out evidence that two factors account for “over half of the black-white disparity in student loan debt.”

First, African-American families are much less likely to have wealth (as opposed to income) available to help family members attend college.  How much less likely?  Black families have, on average, six times less wealth Continue reading

Student Debt at the Intersection of Race, Class and Gender?

The vast majority of reports on student loan borrower and defaulter characteristics tend to focus on one trait– socioeconomic status, race, gender– at a time. While some authors flat-out state that they don’t intend to consider how characteristics relate to one another, for instance, socioeconomic status and race in calculating risk of student loan debt, the majority seem to simply fail to consider exactly how multiple factors might affect a student’s access to resources.

Much of the literature on student loan debt and default rates disaggregates data by single characteristics.  Nicholas Hillman’s College on Credit and the Urban Institute’s Forever In Your Debt take this approach.  Other reports and articles–like Mark Kantrowitz’s Calculating the Contribution of Demographic Differences to Default Rates, the AAUW’s Graduating to a Pay Gap, and Gross, et al.’s  What Matters in Student Loan Default?–mention intersections, but only in passing, and without sustained analysis.

Teasing out single factors is useful, but only up to a point.  If feminist theory has taught us anything over the past decades, it is that we cannot consider race, class, gender or other characteristics in isolation.  To do so is to fail to understand that people do not inhabit one identity at a time, and that the experience of multiple discrimination is the norm, not the exception.  For example, if having a child is is a “risk factor” for drop out and default, why do we not have better analysis of which students are the most likely to be the sole support for dependents?  How can we know the best way to ensure that these students benefit from higher education if we do not know who they are?