Black college grads sought degrees as tickets to success. Now they’re buried in debt
Conner Hurt earned her bachelor's degree in communication sciences and disorders from St. Louis University in 2016. Two years later, she got her master’s degree.
When Hurt finished school, she walked away with more than $100,000 worth of debt. “It’s not something I like to look at often,” said Hurt, 27, a pediatric speech-language pathologist at St. Louis Children’s Hospital.
Like many other Black graduates, it will take her years to pay off her debt.
Some researchers say heavy debt loads and low post-graduation salaries reinforce the racial wealth gap even among well-educated adults.
Black graduates of St. Louis-area universities say college debt has inflicted long-term financial consequences on their lives.
After finishing college, Hurt worked in St. Louis Public Schools as a speech therapist for a couple of years. But she needed a second job as a bartender to make ends meet.
As a first-generation college student, Hurt said scholarships weren’t enough to cover the cost of the degrees. She’s not sure she’ll ever fully pay off her loans. “If they get paid, they get paid,” she said. “If they die with me, they die with me.”
She has plenty of company. About 23% of Americans with postgraduate degrees like her say they owe more than $100,000.
Like other Black professionals, Hurt remembers her parents telling her a college education was the ticket to success.
When it comes to the wealth gap, a college degree “doesn’t serve as an equalizer among Black and white families,” said Lowell Ricketts, a data scientist with the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis.
“When you look at higher education, it’s thought of as this important equalizer, this conduit by which families can improve their means in life, to earn more, to accumulate more wealth,” said Ricketts, who researches the racial wealth gap and uneven financial returns on college educations. “And what we find in the data is, that’s true for all races and ethnicities.”
Even after completing their college educations, Black graduates have far less wealth than their white counterparts.
Households headed by Black college graduates have about 19 cents of wealth for every $1 of wealth a household headed by a while college graduate has, Ricketts said.
“The racial wealth gap is both feeding some of the inequities in higher education outcomes, and in turn, the higher education outcomes are feeding some of the racial wealth gap,” he said.
Black families may be more likely to take out more loans to attend college because they typically have less wealth, said Fenaba Addo, a University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill professor.
A 2019 Federal Reserve survey found that white families have an average wealth of $188,200, while Black families’ wealth stands at $24,100. After college, Black graduates owe an average of $25,000 more than white graduates, according to research done at the Brookings Institution.
“Black households tend to have significantly less wealth than white households, so they have less economic resources to draw upon in order to assist their children with going to college,” said Addo, who has researched and written extensively about college debt and wealth inequality.
With more loans, Black graduates typically take longer to pay down their debt. Then, discrimination in hiring practices can cause Black graduates can have a harder time finding a job with a salary that allows them to pay off student loans, Addo said.
Ricketts said rising college costs have made higher education more risky for many American families of color.
“The risks have risen when it comes to higher education and unfortunately, the racial wealth gap has burdened students of color with an even riskier decision to make in front of them,” he said.
College debt has caused some graduates to delay major milestones. Nationwide, Black borrowers are more likely than white, Hispanic or Asian graduates to say they are putting off buying a home, according to data from the National Center for Education Statistics.
“I do think about, if I were to meet a potential partner, what if they come from a family who was able to pay off all their debt and then I have all this debt? It seems burdensome."
Hurt, the speech therapist, described the idea of buying a home as “impossible” and said she’s considered how her debt might impact her personal life in the future.
“I do think about, if I were to meet a potential partner, what if they come from a family who was able to pay off all their debt and then I have all this debt? It seems burdensome.”
Josias Calhoun graduated from Harris-Stowe State University with a bachelor’s in business marketing in 2010 before getting a master’s in advertising in 2014 from Webster University. The self-employed motivational speaker estimates he still owes about $40,000 in student loans.
While he has a better handle on the loans now, Calhoun said missing payments caused derogatory marks on his credit that have impacted his ability to obtain other loans.
“Now it's not as much of a strain,” Calhoun said. “But I never let it stress me because I can’t pay you what I don’t have.”
He’s a first-generation college graduate, and said he’s one of few who pursued higher education in his community.
“Where I come from, in the city of St. Louis, not a lot of people do it,” he said.
But Calhoun and Hurt both said they didn’t put too much thought into the debt they were taking on to get their degrees.
Calhoun said his degrees and the debt that came with them were well worth it. But said young borrowers attending college or planning to take out loans should take financial literacy classes so they can make informed decisions about taking on debt.
“It should be mandatory for students to take a course or workshop so they’ll understand what they’re getting into, what they’ve gotten into and how you can pay it back,” he said.
The harmful effects of college debt are even more pronounced when borrowers fail to complete their degree, said Jason Jabbari, a researcher at the Social Policy Institute at Washington University.
His research showed that students with non-degree debt were more likely to experience financial anxiety, housing and health care hardships, and less likely to be financially stable than those without.
“We know that low-income students, students from racial minority groups, Black students, Latinx students do have higher rates of non-completion,” Jabbari said. “You don’t have the earnings, but you're saddled with all of this debt.”
Despite the financial risks, researchers say a college education generally remains a powerful tool for economic mobility. But they say families should weigh the risks of costly borrowing, take advantage of grant programs and consider alternatives to a traditional four-year degree.
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