A Love Letter: Canceling Student Loan Debt on Behalf of Black Women

by Sekile M. Nzinga

Black college student


On Jan. 19, 2021, Senator Ayanna Pressley tweeted “You want to thank Black women? Cancel student debt — all of it. Black women carry more student debt than any other group in America. Save your words of appreciation. Policy is our love language. ” I am not a frequent Twitter user, but Pressley’s tweet eventually made it to Facebook. When I read it, I thought, ‘Welp, she just summed up my book, “Lean Semesters,” in one tweet!’ I reshared her tweet and doubled down on her call to action on my Facebook page. I had been frustratingly reading other threads on social media since the 2020 election cycle and also had been reading other opinion pieces that have made erroneous race only counter arguments, stating that erasing student loan debt does not serve black people. I feel compelled to confront such narrow opinions, and the data from my study offers further context to the material and economic impact of student loan debt experienced by Black women and their families.

It has become clear to me as a scholar who studies race, class, and gender in higher education and that even if a Black woman has never stepped foot on a college campus, she has often been impacted by student loan debt. She has either co-signed a loan for a loved one, used her credit card and/or her already suppressed income to repay someone’s student loans, been targeted by subprime student loan lenders, had her wages and/or taxes refunds garnished, used predatory pay day loans to pay her child’s/loved one’s tuitions, fees, books, room and board, and has likely been harassed with threatening calls from creditors. Many of the creditors are contracted by the same financial institutions that also exploited the housing market, which disproportionately hit black home owners, then were bailed out by the US federal government. No one, including Black women, can claim bankruptcy for the vast majority of student loan debt, thus impacting their credit scores and ability to secure housing, loans, cars, and other material needs for themselves and their families. Borrowers and co-signers can be sued by financial and academic institutions for failing to repay student loans. In short, whether they attended college, finished college, went to graduate school, or never completed a college course, the economic data suggests black women carry a disproportionately higher burden of student loan debt, especially if we take a more expansive and integrative view of their integral role in self-funding college education for themselves and other black college students.

Even highly educated “successful” Black women, like myself and Senator Pressley, who have attended graduate school have had to borrow above our capacity to repay our educational debt. Pressley bravely shares during a press conference organized by the American Federation of Teachers, “Like 85 percent of Black students, I had to borrow; and like so many of those students, I also defaulted on those loans.” I also transparently share in the conclusion of “Lean Semesters” that I and my partner are navigating repaying hundreds of thousands of dollars in federal student loan debt, although we earned our PhDs in 2001 and have worked as professors since then. Those who owe six figures, like me, almost always have borrowed for graduate school. If a Black woman is accepted in graduate or professional school, they are less likely to receive internal funding such as fellowships and assistantships and their financial need and educational debt deepens, given that many are also carrying educational debt from their undergraduate programs. Borrowing for graduate school in the US has increased sharply between 1994 and 2014, for instance, average annual borrowing by undergrads increased about 75 percent (to $7,280) while average annual borrowing by grad students rose 110 percent (to $23,875). I began my PhD program in 1995, right at the beginning of the US making graduate school “accessible” to many. For those of us who faced generations of institutionalized discrimination based on our race, class, and gender, we were determined to finally pursue careers as professors and scientists. Black mothers, grandmothers, aunts, older sisters, and cousins ​​will often sacrifice more economically to make sure the next generation will attain what they and their ancestors were denied. They often step in to support them by helping with living expenses but also by co-signing for graduate student loans, which begin accruing interest the day they begin their graduate or professional school classes.

Black women are heading to college in droves to try to outrun the centuries of injustice and the resultant economic inequality they now face. I grew up working class, living in a housing project, receiving free breakfast and lunch, and attended Head Start and public schools. On the outside, a now highly educated Black woman like me embodies the epitome of professional success or what some have romantically termed “Black excellence.” My partner and I landed two tenure-track positions right out of graduate school in 2001. I graduated with a toddler on one hip and an infant on the other and had done the insurmountable for most women — become a professor and parent. But we had the dual challenge of starting professor salaries in the low 40Ks in 2001 and the high costs of childcare. Both of us had to request student loan forbearances until our three children entered public school, so our already high federal student loan interest ballooned and our educational debt increased. Twenty years later, we continue to attempt to pay down my educational debt and are now bracing for the forthcoming federal student loan repayments for our two sons, whom I gave birth to while I was earning my PhD and who are completing their bachelor’s degrees. Intergenerational student loan debt is a reality for many Americans, and for every dollar spent on loan repayment, it is one taken away from our retirement savings and families’ economic stability. In fact, a new analysis of government data reveals that approximately two million federal student loan borrowers, like me, have been in repayment for more than 20 years, yet still owe student loans for undergraduate debt. As one woman I interviewed for “Lean Semesters” put it, we have “mortgaged our brains” in pursuit of simply trying to establish better lives.

Congress’ stated intention to offer millions of federal student loan borrowers an affordable path out of debt through repayment plans is buried by flawed program design, failed implementation by the student loan industry, and documented mismanagement by the educational department. Although I have not defaulted on my student loans, Black and brown students are five times more likely to default compared to their white counterparts. A report from Brookings Institute by Judith Scott-Clayton noted that “38 percent of Black first-time college students in 2004 defaulted within 12 years.” Her projections of those rates to 20 years out notes that as many as 70 percent of Black borrowers “may ultimately experience default.” Black women, college educated or not, bear the financial brunt of those defaults.

Additionally, an estimated 61 million people in the US, according to federal data, are living with a disability. One in four Black people have disabilities and yet they tend to benefit less from disability policy even though they may have some of the greatest needs. They are also less likely to access disability related accessibility resources like Individual Education Plans (IEPs) and 504 accommodation plans that would otherwise help them within educational settings. With this context in mind, it is safe to assume a disproportionate number of Black women who persist and attend college have some form of a disability and if they are student loan borrowers, they should be able to qualify from some relief. Yet, in June 2019, according to the US Education Department, 365,000 borrowers were identified as potentially eligible for loan discharge but had not yet gotten relief and 225,000 of those borrowers had already defaulted on their loans. This compounding, but often overlooked, reality for Black women student loan borrowers with disabilities cannot go understated.

The joint structural failures for student loan borrowers offer clear evidence why total debt cancellation, that is not tied to income debt repayment programs (IDR), must be part of the Biden Administration’s student loan plan, and why the existing IDR program should not be floated. as an adequate substitute. Especially given all that we now know about the machinations of educational debt impacting the US economy and its citizenship. Of course, Black women are not the sole victims of the burden of student loan debt, but student loan debt is definitely contributing to Black women’s economic and material distress just as it is for people of all genders and races carrying such a punitive burden.

I wholeheartedly support Senators Ayanna Pressley’s and Bernie Sanders’ campaigns to cancel student loan debt now if we are committed to saving the US economy and if we say we want to support Black women, their families, and their communities. I also urge activists committed to racial justice to take up the student loan debt crisis in their social movement work. The economic struggle produced from student loan debt is a form of state sanctioned violence, that forces many into poverty, deteriorates mental health and health due to financial stress, and criminalizes those without the privilege of intergenerational wealth simply for seeking, or supporting someone seeking, a college education.

Simply put, the US’ student loan debt crisis is not an educated elite issue as some have narrowly described it. In fact, the narratives that I have documented of highly educated Black women in “Lean Semesters,” and having a more expansive view of its economic impact on everyday Black women, underscore that canceling student loan debt is very much an intersectional and Black feminist issue. that demands our collective attention.

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