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Keynote: Race, wealth and attainment linked, says Brookings scholar

Race, property, college debt—they all intersect in a way that demands more of the country’s attention, says Brookings Institution scholar, educator, and author Andre Perry.

Speaking Tuesday at a Lumina Foundation convening on postsecondary attainment, Perry noted that it’s not just income that builds wealth; it’s lack of debt. That’s why he endorsed a new commitment by Detroit-area universities to forgive student debt as a way to bring back students who left college before receiving their degrees.

Under the arrangement, announced at the convening, the Detroit Regional Chamber and three higher education institutions—Wayne State University, Henry Ford College, and Oakland University—will forgive a certain amount of outstanding debt provided students meet certain conditions, including making steady progress toward a credential.

That came as welcome news to Perry, who highlighted the compact during his remarks on the impact of disparate housing values on African-American progress, particularly in education.

“It’s not enough just to give people scholarships,” Perry said. “A scholarship doesn’t feed you or put a roof over your head.” Perry also denounced colleges’ common practice of holding back transcripts until students have paid all their bills. Without a transcript release, students can’t progress at the same institution or transfer to a new one. And even the smallest unpaid balance can damage their credit, keeping them from buying homes and cars, even getting certain jobs. “By holding transcripts hostage, colleges are not allowing people to move on,” Perry said.

Perry drew parallels between the student debt problem and the disparity of home valuations in white and black neighborhoods. Even controlling for various factors, he reports, the median value of homes in black neighborhoods is 23 percent less than in white neighborhoods. Nationwide, he says, that amounts to $156 billion in lost equity—roughly the value of 8.1 million four-year college degrees. The lost tax revenue, he says, “is robbing black people of the opportunity to lift themselves up.”

Reducing housing debt builds equity that improves communities. So does valuing property without a racial lens. In college, similar principles apply. Institutional debt disproportionately hurts low-income students of color. Forgiving some of this debt, Perry suggests, is a modest start toward building students’ ownership of their education.

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Tracy Chen
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