The Disparate Truth of Debt in Higher Education

The Disparate Truth of Debt in Higher Education

The Disparate Truth of Debt in Higher Education

At the outset, I knew that I would have to overcome systematic racism, transphobia and homophobia. I knew my learning disabilities would make it difficult as well. Yet, the most forbidding boundary in my way is the tremendous debt I have accrued, a fact compounded by the prospect that my calling is not known for being financially lucrative. … I have grown to fear that the pursuit of my passion, which is ultimately to help and liberate others, has doomed myself and my family to captivity; working all our lives to pay for five years of education. (Ahsante Sankofa Foree)[1]

The $1.3 trillion federal and private student debt tab is part of the national dialogue thanks to student debtors like Foree who’ve shared their stories and organized to expose it, and the correlative crisis caused by structural racism that often leads to disparate debt, opportunity, and decreased ability to pay off loans needs a spotlight, too. Of course, a majority of students are impacted by student debt, with 85% of first time, full-time undergraduate students at 4-year post-secondary institutions receiving financial aid. Now, dig a little deeper into the data and it’s evident that debt-financed degrees disproportionately affect minority and low-income students, and these students are also more likely to drop out prior to degree attainment, but bearing the debt load.

In a report called “The Debt Divide: The Racial and Class Bias Behind the ‘New Normal’ of Student Borrowing," Mark Huelsman “reveals a system that is deeply biased along class and racial lines.” Huelsman argues that “this shift to a debt-based system impacts our nation’s historical commitment to ensuring everyone—regardless of race or class—can afford to go to college.” The ugly truth of racial and class disparity is something that our society needs to face and fix before we can move on as a nation with all citizens lifted. Though we do not live in a post-racial society, there are many ways to work together and build collectively toward fundamental system change.

For example, there is a need for structural change and solving systemic problems, and one way to make progress is to shine a light on the existing data. Mapping Student Debt is an interactive tool that shows how borrowing for college affects communities throughout the nation, and how student debt in particular drains opportunity and drives economic inequality. When you start to explore Map 2: Race, there is no denying that poverty is in part caused by “structural racism in higher education, the credit and labor markets, and the wealth distribution.” We have to acknowledge the root causes of systemic problems and do whatever it takes to ensure that all citizens are valued and treated with dignity.

It’s crucial to remember that higher education profits off student debt (tuition) and shortchanges faculty (contingent labor) to increase earnings; therefore, change that seeks to dismantle the status quo is a trade-off that many administrations won’t entertain without strategic pressure, fair labor standards, and effective regulatory policies in place to check the prioritization of quality education and ethical missions over profiteering.[2] If higher education is a public good it must prioritize inputs and outcomes that foster success not systemic failure. Public higher education is not the proper domain for business per usual practices including toxic financial deals, the use of risky financial products, and capital investments that jeopardize affordable, sustainable operations and ultimately burden students with more debt prior to, during, and post graduation, or in worst cases—non-attainment—debt without a degree to show for it.

In order to change the system, we need to defend and fund education as a public good, and this means that we have to get at the true cost of education and hold the administration responsible for educational debt. Educating citizens is a public responsibility that needs to be met with greater urgency and resources, too. Once the amount of debt a student takes on is reduced, she can return to her community and make positive contributions instead of clawing her way out of quicksand. A student should not be worse off than where they started for education, but this is increasingly the case. With the way the system is now, student debt is not caused by poor choices, it’s the result of a rigged economy that’s crept into our public institutions and cannibalized nearly everyone in its path. If this isn’t your reality—congratulations, you’ve somehow made it. When you come from a place of poverty, the odds of upward mobility—the increasingly illusive American Dream—are harder to come by, though. As senior investigative reporter Lance Williams at the Center for Investigative Reporting reveals in an nprEd interview:

There's been tremendous disinvestment in public higher education in our country. It peaked in the 1970s. Our reporting showed that if state legislatures had continued to support higher ed at the rate they were in 1980, they would have pumped an additional $500 billion, billion with a B, into state university systems. Interestingly, that's just about how much outstanding debt is now held by people who attended public colleges and universities. You see the symmetry. As the states disinvest, the burden is picked up by the students, and the way they pay for it is they borrow the money.

The cost of doing business in higher education is too high, and this has negative consequences for society and the economy. Higher education funding at the state level is mostly discretionary, not mandatory (such as Medicaid, elementary and secondary school funding), yet educational attainment is valued because an educated citizenry is more likely to contribute dollars back into the economy and rely less on social services. It’s time to get the public agenda on the path to recovery and prosperity for all, not some.

It’s well established that student debt is a threat to opportunity, and it’s no secret that our nation’s most vulnerable populations are being targeted. It’s time to turn up the pressure on targeted advertising to minority populations, too, which is poverty profiteering of the lowest form. Just look at this University of Phoenix “More Than Brains” commercial that shows what appears to be a wounded veteran, a single mother breastfeeding, a man with a disabled spouse, and several people of color as warriors reclaiming the American Dream against the odds, and you’ll see what I mean. Then consider how the Jerry Springer Show and others aired targeted advertising of Corinthian Colleges Inc. schools even after they collapsed. Next up: the 2017 NCAA Men’s Final Four is scheduled to take place in the massive University of Phoenix Stadium, the Trojan Horse of advertising campaigns, on April 1 and April 3 in Glendale, Arizona.

Undoubtedly, racial disparities exist and a lot of entities, chief among them post-secondary schools and banks, are profiting off vulnerable people. As uncomfortable as it may be, we have to confront structural racism, and that means engaging in critical dialogue and organization that leads to action. When it comes to borrowing, race matters and “African American students in particular are graduating with much more debt than white students.” The problem does not end there, though, as this next figure indicates:

Figure 1. Median earnings of 25- to 34-year-old bachelor’s or higher degree recipients who worked full time, year round, by selected employment sector, sex, and race/ethnicity: 2014[3]


The time for sitting idly by while too many of our fellow citizens go deeper into unrecoverable debt is over. As a nation, we cannot afford to look away or profit off of others’ pain and poverty conditions. We have to prioritize intervention points that consider the hard evidence of structural racism in its various forms, which really is violence. No more excuses. No more victim blaming or shaming. As renowned social justice advocate john a. powell argues:

Indeed, although we may try to ignore or explain them as choice, racialized disparities persist across all areas of life and opportunity, and segregation divides us not only in our neighborhoods, schools, and businesses but also in non-competitive spheres like spirituality or music.[4] … Even laws and policies considered fair, equal, and universal will continue to falter or fail as long as they rest on a foundation of racialized injury and injustice.[5]



[1]Sentenced to Debt: The Hidden Costs of Unaffordable Education.” Alliance for a Just Society and Oregon Action, (September 2015), 20.

[2] In an article entitled “Power Concedes Nothing Without a Demand,” Chris Hedges draws inspiration from Frederick Douglass’s 1857 West India Emancipation speech.

[3] See: “Post-Bachelors Employment Outcomes by Sex and Race/Ethnicity.” The Condition of Education 2016, 8.

[4] Though powell does not elaborate, I presume he means the non-competitive practice/consumption not production/commodification of spirituality or music.

[5] john a. powell, Racing to Justice: Transforming Our Conceptions of Self and Other to Build an Inclusive Society. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2015, xvii.



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