America cannot be a nation of equals until we address the $1.7 trillion student debt crisis that is further widening our country’s racial wealth gap. One way to do that would be through widespread student debt cancellation.
Unaffordable student loans perpetuate the cycle of debt and cripple borrowers’ ability to build wealth, as many see their balances grow despite making regular payments. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, one in four borrowers was in default or serious delinquency.
Given our country’s history of systemic racism, people of color have a harder time repaying their student loans. Black borrowers are more likely to borrow, and borrow in higher amounts, to finance their education. They also have less generational wealth and have less of a cushion to withstand financial shocks — all of which contribute to a higher likelihood of delinquency and default on student loan debt.
In fact, the Brookings Institute reports that almost half of Black graduates owe more on their undergraduate student loans four years after graduation than they did when they received their degree, compared to 17% of white graduates. Twenty years after starting college, the typical Black borrower still owes 95% of the original cumulative balance, according to a report from the Institute on Assets and Social Policy at Brandeis University’s Heller School for Social Policy and Management.
Malcolm X referred to education as a “passport to the future,” but all too often, a heavy debt burden is preventing borrowers, especially borrowers of color, from fully participating in the economy by delaying purchasing homes, starting businesses and saving for retirement.
It doesn’t have to be that way.
If the Administration ordered across-the-board student debt cancellation, millions of students would have the opportunity to inject money into the economy and lift the country’s GDP. A recent Center for Responsible Lending (CRL) report conducted with the National Consumer Law Center (NCLC) showed that cancellation of $50,000 would render more than 75% of federal borrowers debt-free. It would wipe out loans for 36 million borrowers, according to the Department of Education, including more than 3 million of the 4.5 million borrowers who have been in repayment for more than 20 years. It would also cancel debt for 95% of borrowers — almost 10 million individuals — who were in default or serious delinquency prior to the COVID-19 pandemic.
President Biden promised that he would cancel $10,000 of student debt per borrower during his election campaign. However, he has not followed through, claiming Congress should be responsible for granting debt relief. Yet, President Biden has the power to cancel student debt by executive action. It is the same power former President Trump used to establish the federal student loan payment pause.
The current Administration must enact policies to help borrowers of color build wealth. The Department of Education also should increase federal funding for Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), increase the amount of the Pell Grant, improve income-driven repayment (IDR) programs, and reduce interest, end interest capitalization and eliminate origination fees on federal student loans.
The pursuit of equality should not come with the burden of unaffordable student debt. For centuries, Blacks have played a vital role in building this country while being denied the opportunity to share in its wealth. We are the leaders of today and tomorrow. It is time for us to achieve the American Dream without carrying on crippling student loan debt that has prevented us from fully participating in the economy.
The time is now to bring forth an equitable future. As Martin Luther King Jr. said, “The time is always right to do what is right.”
Jaylon Herbin is the policy and outreach manager at the Center for Responsible Lending.