Forty Advocacy Groups Write for Action Long Overdue

Washington -- The trade paper Inside Higher Ed reports this week on a letter from forty organizations that asks the Department of Education to inquire into the relationship between student loan debt and racial inequality.

“It is unacceptable that, for nearly a decade, the department has known that student loan debt disproportionately harms borrowers of color, and despite this knowledge, has failed to even track this problem, let alone address the issue,” the letter avows.

Actually, the department has known of the disparity for nearly fifteen years. When I worked at the National Center for Education Research in 2002, I looked at the matter and found that low-income African Americans were being burdened disproportionately with student debt. In a paper in which I investigated the responses of colleges and universities to changes in federal student loan and grant levels over time, I found that regardless of grant levels, loan levels for low-income blacks increased. This was not the case for any other group I investigated. Interestingly, when Pell grants went up, loan burdens decreased for middle and upper income groups of all races and ethnicities (Pell grants being fungible) but loan burdens actually increased for low-income blacks. What was going on?

The department had no interest in the findings and no curiosity as to why I was getting these results. I asked the National Center for Education Statistics to publish its descriptive reports on student debt by race/by income, so the public could see the interactions between race and class, and so that other researchers could develop theories and hypotheses as to how and why federal aid programs were not working as intended for the low-come black population.

But NCES saw institutions as its clientele, and institutions insisted on completely separate reports for race and for class. One reason was that most colleges and universities by 2002 were committed to affirmative action by race and rejected the use of class-based affirmative action as a means of achieving racial and ethnic diversity. They had a compelling logic for this – cost. It was much easier on institutions' budgets to enroll middle and higher income blacks and Hispanics to meet diversity targets rather than to provide aid to the financially needy. Ironically, while institutions publicly disdained class-based affirmative action as inferior to race-based, they enthusiastically employed class as an overlay to race-based affirmative action when it came to their own budgets. They clearly favored the upper-income.

As long as the Department of Education did not report its statistics by combined race and class, institutions were able to talk a good game about commitment to racial diversity, and they do to this day. However, because institutions systematically shortchanged the low-income black population, the student debt crisis has understandably hit this group harder than others. Which is the reason forty advocacy groups have now demanded that the department track and address the issue.

The letter is excellent; action is long overdue.