In an interview with Dominique Baker, assistant professor of education policy, Simmons School of Education & Human Development, Southern Methodist University, I discussed the importance of Black voices in policy dialogues about affordability and student borrowing. Read more on Lumina’s “Borrowers of Color” project.

1. What do affordability and debt issues look like among Black students, and how would you say these issues are connected to the larger story of Black students in higher education?

We have several decades of research to show that Black students borrow the highest amounts at the highest rates. We also have research that shows their families rely on student loans to finance higher education at much higher rates than their peers. We talk a lot about the ways that higher education can improve and enrich people’s lives, but what we talk less about is what different families must do to obtain it. We have consistent evidence that points to heavy loan reliance as a prominent feature of that story for Black families.

2. When race enters conversations around affordability, borrowing, and debt, the focus is usually on comparing Black and white borrowers. What’s behind this framing? What framing do you think is necessary to talk about the experiences of Black borrowers?

On what’s behind this framing

… This is a societal lens that we‘ve applied to student loans in a lot of ways. That gets exacerbated by the fact that in most research we see this same trend, making it easier to just look at what happens for Black students versus white students. Consequently, we don’t know as much as we should about Hispanic and Latino, Native, or Asian students. This narrowing also lends itself to a deficit ‘othering’ of Black students that is not useful for building solutions. We emote shock when we talk about Black borrowers. We compare Black students to white students and say “look what the white students are able to do, and the Black students aren’t” rather than addressing underlying systemic conditions that lead to these differences.

On what framing is necessary

… This narrow binary (Black/white) also doesn’t allow for more nuanced perspectives of the diversity of Black borrowers’ experiences. For example, Black women have unique experiences when compared with Black men, which can also overlay gendered college-going rates, persistence rates, and labor market discrimination against women. These different pieces create layers (of complexity), but unfortunately the issues that are easiest to comprehend are ones that are simple. We try to generalize and simplify to get our point across, and in doing so we often lose the variety and richness of stories. The richness of stories matters because it shifts how we frame and fix the problem.

3. How should structural racism be accounted for in policy discussions about Black borrowers?

On the harm of race neutrality

First, we need to accept that there’s no such thing as race-neutral policy. We assume that race neutrality will result in policies that affect everyone in the same way while ignoring racial disparities. However, we know that doesn’t work. For example, the creditworthiness changes to PLUS Loan eligibility in 2011 made it more difficult for Black parents to qualify, particularly parents of students at historically black colleges and universities. We have causal evidence that show those policy changes decreased enrollments at HBCUs.

… We’ve structured our society and predicated our policies on rooted racial disparities. We’ve created an environment where Black families have fewer resources and less wealth to contribute to their children’s educations, where K-12 systems are racially segregated across schools and within schools; and where Black students don’t get the same resources or experiences for learning. Those challenges show up in the limited college options Black students too often have. They show up in how Black people pay (and repay) for college. And they too often show up in limited workforce outcomes and lower earnings. All along the pipeline Black individuals are vulnerable to needing more education and loans to attain prosperity but not necessarily having the resources they need to finish and get a boost equal to their peers. Policymaking must account for that.

4. Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) play an important role for Black students. How do these institutions and their role fit into the Black borrower conversation?

HBCUs are one of the most significant assets in American higher education. I’ve seen popular press articles talk about how we got to a point where students who graduate from HBCUs have higher debt. Often, what we know (and don’t talk about as much) is that these institutions serve students who have higher financial need. If that’s the bulk of whom the institutions are serving, it’s highly likely that those students will have larger amounts of debt. HBCUs also are woefully underfunded and have limited ability to offer institutional scholarships to students as a borrowing stopgap. It is foolhardy to ignore the systemic ways that we as a country have underfunded HBCUs when talking about the loan burdens of students who attend them.

5. Are we missing critical data or evidence needed to inform more race-conscious policymaking? Are there segments of the Black community that are being overlooked?

On the adequacy of data collection

Whenever you hear about race and student loans from a national perspective, it’s generally based on representative survey samples from the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics (NCES). But we also have the National Student Loan Data System (NSLDS), which houses bare-bones information but was not originally intended for us to track characteristic data about borrowers. That’s part of the reason we have inadequate information along racial lines. In a dream world, we would get an actual census of information that has student loan information along with each individual’s race, and we could tie that to information from the Treasury Department [for example] so we could have good evidence of what’s happening to students and where it’s happening. We could better understand what the problems are in order to formulate solutions. That is an issue on the federal and state levels.

… We do not have enough data on Black borrowers at different identity intersections. We have some data to show that Black women are relying on loans and experiencing the labor market in a way in which their debt burdens are excessive compared with their peers of different genders and races. We must think about how the relationships between gender, age, region, socioeconomic background, and further identity characteristics intersect with how Black students experience higher education and the student loan system. Right now, we just don’t know enough.

6. Given what’s happening with COVID-19, the economic recession, and the related effects on higher education, what will this moment mean for Black borrowers?

On Black adults

Typically, students choose to go to college as a shelter during recessions. And that’s not just [18- to 22-year-old] students, that’s also people who lose their jobs. People may also choose to defer loan payments and go back to college to complete a degree they previously started or go to graduate school (and defer loan payments). If things work in a typical manner, you could see an explosion around the pursuit of graduate school credentials to allow some people time to take shelter from the poor labor market, which of course allows for predatory institutions to prey upon vulnerable populations for revenue.

That said, these institutions are often the ones that are being as flexible as possible to help these students (i.e. enrollment windows, class times, etc.). Because of interlocking systems of oppression, Black individuals often have to increase their skills or credentials at disproportionate rates to their peers during tough labor markets. So, when it comes to the Black working class having to “skill up” to deal with a recession, a lot of institutions are not going to have the capability to be nimble and shift and be able to support these students. If (predatory institutions) are the only place that these students can go, it doesn’t matter what information you give them, it’s the only option that works for them. I don’t think all institutions are interested in trying to be more accommodating, and on top of that, I think we’re about to see a number of non-predatory broad-access institutions close.

7. Why is it especially critical that we elevate Black voices when we talk about affordability, student loan debt, and solutions for Black students?

There’s all sorts of research that demonstrates the value of diversity in thinking through problems and arriving at solutions. It becomes challenging when problem solving is done for a group of people—instead of with or by a group of people. It creates an environment where solutions are not targeted to what the real problems might be. You want to have people who are working on the problem and can speak to ways of thinking about it in depth, who can challenge ideas, who are able to think about what buy-in looks like, and so on. When you’re trying to think about a comprehensive solution around Black student borrowing and Black student debt, it would be odd to not have in the room Black individuals who have experience with debt personally and can talk about that or who have knowledge and expertise in higher education policy, loan borrowing, consumer finance, and more.

[Editor’s Note: This Q&A is one of three interviews that delve into the experiences of borrowers of color. Wayne Taliaferro and Katherine Wheatle, strategy officers at Lumina Foundation, explore how the insights and findings of researchers’ of color can aid policymakers.]


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