Anyone who pays attention to higher education policy should know by now the outsized debt burdens shouldered by Black, Hispanic or Latino, and Native American students. And yet we haven’t yet moved from admiring the problem to implementing solutions, in part because the space has been dominated by white policy experts (who are, frankly, like me).
A good example of this happened two years ago, when four U.S. senators sent a letter to nearly 100 stakeholders asking for ideas to improve federal policies for student borrowers of color and to make access to higher education more equitable. In reviewing the responses that were publicly posted, I was struck by two things. First, very few letters spoke to the important contextual differences among Black, Hispanic and Latino, and Native borrowers. Second, many letters connected racial/ethnic disparities in borrowing to their overarching policy agendas and didn’t address root causes specifically for debt-related outcomes.
I called up Dominique Baker, one of the country’s experts on these issues, to see if she was seeing the same things. She then suggested a larger discussion group that, in 2019, became Lumina’s Borrowers of Color Working Group.
Each member brought a unique expertise and a strong interest in student borrowing and equity. Most of the members were experts of color. As we began, many members said how refreshing it was not to be the only person of color there.
Their efforts culminated in a new collection of essays, Changing the Narrative on Student Borrowers of Color. Individually, the essays shed light on specific topics and populations of students. As a whole, we hope they form a collection that can help move the field forward in a more equitable, student-centered way. The heart of the collection has three parts.
First, Baker and her co-author Fenaba Addo correct common myths about Black borrowers. They illuminate how Black students and families face a set of choices different from those available to white students. The authors also exhort the policy community to take the long view of affordability and accountability, given that Black graduates face discrimination in the workforce.
Next, Denisa Gándara and Desiree Zerquera provide a fuller understanding of the borrowing experiences of Hispanic and Latino students. Emphasizing the varied nature of this student population, the authors describe how weakened social trust, enrollment decisions, and family-level financial decision-making better explain Latinx behavior than simplistic debt-aversion narratives.
Finally, Christine Nelson, Amanda Tachine, and Jameson Lopez remind us that supporting Native American borrowers starts with honoring the treaties between the United States and Tribal Nations. The authors also emphasize the need for new approaches to data inclusion among Indigenous people, the elevation of Tribal Colleges and Universities, and efforts to correct damaging narratives that mask Native students’ struggles with affordability.
Along the way, the collection also includes a piece by Joanna Darcus that highlights differences within the community of Asian American and Pacific Islander students, as well as a proposal by Sarah Sattelmeyer to use “family balance sheets” to capture a fuller picture of student borrowing and repayment behaviors, especially in communities of color. The collection closes with a review of various policy opportunities to meet the call raised by the working group.
We hope these voices and perspectives can help establish the right narrative centered on the dignity of students of color and our responsibility to understand them and design solutions around that understanding.
After all, real progress depends on setting up the right conversations and narrative. And, so far, too much of the discussion has been framed in deficits, lacked full inclusion of voices of color, and failed to investigate root causes and differences among racial and ethnic groups.
On a personal note, this effort has been a good exercise for me, a white policy and foundation person, to sit back and listen — not something that I was trained or even encouraged to do earlier in my career. As we work toward an antiracist future where healing and equitable progress can occur, we also need to recognize the necessity of slowing down and reflecting on the past and present. Yes, that means that the most equity- and justice-minded thing white people can do at times is to stop doing anything and open up space for leaders of color to come into the spotlight. Knowing the numbers does not necessarily mean that you understand the problem.
In this case, I thought I understood the dynamics at play for the dialogue related to student borrowers of color back in 2019 — but I was only scratching the surface. Thanks to the wisdom, experience, and generosity of time and perspective of our working group members, I am now more aware of the root causes and context for statistics about student debt, more fluent in how to talk about these issues in a respectful and asset-based way, and more committed than ever to doing my part to produce solutions. I hope others will, too.