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While Brittani Williams was busy working toward her bachelor’s degree, the student loan debt she was quickly accruing rarely crossed her mind. Her focus was on her coursework.

A first-generation student, Williams relied on loans to fund her college and hopefully, help change the course of her family’s lives.

After she had her degree in hand, it was time to start paying. The reality of her debt finally hit her.

Now a doctoral student in education leadership policy at Texas Tech University, Williams often thinks about the student loan debt she is still accruing. And for Williams, a higher education senior policy analyst at the advocacy group Education Trust, the personal is also professional. 

She’s studying the way people like her — Black women borrowers — are burdened by college debt more profoundly than any other demographic group.

Related: Black student parents are at the epicenter of the student debt crisis 

Nearly two-thirds of the $1.7 trillion in student debt in America is held by women, and Black borrowers are more negatively affected due to systemic racism, according to a report Williams coauthored, “How Black Women Experience Student Debt.” Her work is an extension of research started by Education Trust in 2020 with a National Black Student Loan Debt Study survey of 1,300 Black borrowers and the subsequent Jim Crow Debt report, which identified college debt as a racial and economic justice issue.

Williams and her coauthor, Victoria Jackson, Education Trust’s assistant director of higher education policy, said that Black women are marginalized due to their race and gender, putting them among the lowest earners in the labor market. The racial wealth gap leaves Black women with fewer resources to pay back their loans because, Williams said, for Black women, more degrees do not necessarily equal more money.

“We see these degrees to be vehicles of upward mobility. And then the stark realization is we get these degrees and the car is broken,” Williams said. “That mobility piece is not there.”

The recently extended pandemic pause on federal loan payments has given Williams some reprieve. But broadly, Black women are asking for actual solutions not what Ameshia Cross, Education Trust’s assistant director of communications for higher education, called “kicking the can down the road.”

The Education Trust report highlighted the experiences of women who recount various struggles with debt. One told of bargaining with herself about whether a graduate degree would be worth it and whether she would be able to pay off her debt. Another said she was trying to raise children while getting degrees and was eventually sent to collections because she couldn’t pay the money back. A third said her credit score was so affected by her debt, she couldn’t get a car loan and then could only get jobs near public transit. 

“There are only two things that can relieve someone: either cancel their debt or give them the money to pay the debt back.”

Ivory Toldson, NAACP

Ivory Toldson, the director of education, innovation and research at the NAACP, said he first started to notice the disproportionate impact on Black women borrowers about a decade ago when he realized that Black women were earning more college degrees but Black men still made more money. 

Now, he studies the impact of student loan debt on the ability of Black people to advance economically, he said. The ultimate goal is to close the racial wage gap. 

“Women in general, Black women in particular, they need a college degree to even have a chance,” Toldson said. “So the way to get a college degree, especially if you’re first generation or low income, is you have to take out loans.”

Related: Why white students are 250% more likely to graduate than Black students at public universities 

Toldson, the NAACP and Education Trust agree on potential solutions to alleviate the burden on Black women.

“There are only two things that can relieve someone: either cancel their debt or give them the money to pay the debt back,” Toldson said.

If there isn’t cancellation in Washington, the Education Trust report calls for improvements to federal income-driven repayment plans to make it easier for borrowers to pay back their debt and shorten the time it takes to get debt forgiven.

To prevent more Black women from ending up so burdened by college debt, Education Trust and the NAACP suggest increasing the size of the federal Pell Grant so that it covers a greater portion of college costs, and making college more affordable in general.

Without these actions from Washington, said Cross of Education Trust, the unfair cycle will continue.

“It’s consistently pushed in our community that college is financial freedom, college is economic freedom, and they’re not feeling that on the other side of it,” Cross said. 

“Black female students just aren’t seeing that and right now, even with the accumulation of degrees – the bachelor’s, the master’s – you have to make yourself more competitive in a field to get more money. You end up on the other side of this suffering.”

This story about Black women was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for our higher education newsletter.

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Olivia Sanchez is a higher education reporter. She previously covered local and state government for the Capital Gazette newspaper in Annapolis, Maryland. Sanchez earned a bachelor's degree in psychology...

Letters to the Editor

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  1. African American – Female – Baby Boomer – Student Loan Debt

    $112k in student loan debt since the 1980’s. Grew from 50k to 112k. I’m 59 years old, scared, ashamed, embarrassed and not sure what’s going to happen to me as I enter retirement age

    I am the first to get a college degree in my household. My family lived through much poverty, having no food on the table, moving around living with different relatives throughout my childhood, no money for college or anything really. My family was on welfare and welfare paid for my mother to go to nursing school, which was wonderful.

    I knew the only way out of poverty was to get an education. I worked in bars and restaurants during school, which could never be enough to pay for tuition and basic living expenses. I started borrowing in the 1980’s and made some sporadic payments on the debt when I could.

    I do not know why over the years I couldn’t seem to find jobs that paid enough to live and make student loan payments. I had been fortunate when in some romantic relations, where partners helped out financially, but this debt is still my own and has been following me for over 35 years.

    I have exhausted all of the forbearance’s and been on an Income Driven Payment plan. As luck would have it, I’ve found employment and making a good salary. So here’s the rub, I’m single, with rent, car payments, bills, etc. When these large payments come due, I will be once again put in a precarious position of not being able to afford the cost of living.

    I had never known or been aware of subtle racism growing up, and that opportunities weren’t handed down to me. I was just used to or accustomed to not getting that job, and having to go back and work at a bar through-out my life.

    Aside from the upcoming hardship upon me when the payments come due, I’m doing quote unquote “well, because I do work.” I’m also very embarrassed and ashamed about the debt. My white friends don’t know about it. They all went to good schools and none of them graduated owing anything. I wasn’t aware of just how difficult life would be when starting out so disadvantaged. I’ve hidden all of this and pretended to have money, when I did not.

    If President Biden could cancel at least half or all, I might stand a chance at a comfortable retirement.

    I know I’m not alone and many others of us who were born minorities, born in the 60’s are still stressed and worried about debt that won’t seem to go away. This $112,000 I owe, started at around $50,000 (actual amount owed before all the interest).
    I need help before the agencies begin collecting.

    Thank you for listening.

    Yvette Ford

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