If You’re Black in America, You’ll Pay More for College and Get Less

September 9, 2019

Why This Matters is a series from Roosevelt staff connecting our individual work—from papers to reports and everything in between—to our broader vision of creating a better, more equitable economic and political system. This series will give readers the top takeaways from our latest writing and thinking, with a focus on why they matter as we redefine the rules that guide our social and economic realities.

America’s $1.6 trillion student debt crisis is crushing millions of us, but it is disproportionately harming Black people—and fueling the racial wealth gap.

In a new Roosevelt report, co-released with Demos and The Century Foundation, Roosevelt Program Manager Suzanne Kahn and her coauthors underscore that our debt-financed higher education system reinforces the structural racism that plagues our society.

“In order to finance higher education, Black families—already disadvantaged by generational wealth disparities—rely more heavily on student debt, and on riskier forms of student debt, than white families do,” they write. Black students must borrow more to pay for college, they are twice as likely to default on their loans, and their debts last far longer than those of white borrowers.

Failing to recognize that student debt does not pay for itself, many policymakers have neglected these racial impacts.

As important as it is to address unequal practices within our higher education system (including predatory for-profit colleges that target people of color), it’s critical to remember that racialized outcomes aren’t just about discrimination at the college level; the structural discrimination in our economy starts well before college, and it definitely lasts well after graduation.

Black college graduates receive lower earnings for the same degrees as white college graduates, and Black business owners (Black farmers, for example) are more vulnerable to market power forces. The “work hard, study hard” mantra is not fostering racial equality because racial inequality is not an individual problem—it’s a systemic one.

As Roosevelt Fellow Darrick Hamilton often notes, one statistic “vividly displays” this reality: If you’re a Black family and the head of your household graduated from college, you are likely to hold less wealth than a white family whose head of household dropped out of high school. From the higher cost of college to exclusionary labor laws that perpetuate racism, Black Americans face generational barriers to economic opportunity at every stage of life.

“Race-neutral” higher education policies, like debt financing, were supposed to equalize the system. Instead, they have replicated and compounded racial inequality.

This isn’t unique to higher education policy. If policymakers in any field fail to recognize and deliberately solve for structural racism in their policy plans, those plans won’t solve for racial inequality; in fact, they’re likely to make things worse.

Ultimately, Black students in America are paying a lot more for college, and they’re getting a lot less—during school, long after, and certainly before. As election season intensifies, I hope candidates and everyone watching will remember one crucial point: Race is not a single issue; it’s every issue.

Big ideas to redefine our higher education system, and restructure the economy more broadly, must aim to dismantle structural racism. Those in power (and those seeking it) can’t ignore this truth any longer. The public—and especially Black women, men, and children—can’t afford it.