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When I graduated with a bachelor’s degree from William & Mary in 2003, I desperately needed a job. I was the mother of a 4-year-old daughter, and I was consumed by worries about child care, the car note for my used Honda Civic and saving for my own apartment. In addition, I had $30,000 in student debt.

In recent years, as U.S. student loan debt climbed to $1.6 trillion, the country has finally begun to talk about the punishing financial costs of obtaining a college degree. But the singular toll on students like me — Black parents — continues to go largely unremarked upon.

Black parents hold more student debt than parents or nonparents of any other racial or ethnic group. According to the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, Black students who are raising children borrow an average of $18,100 for college, compared with an average of $13,500 among all students.

We’re not talking about this crisis within a crisis in part because we don’t talk about student parents in general. That’s because we cling to an outdated view of who college students are —  young people on the cusp of adulthood with few responsibilities. But that’s no longer the case. Because of this outdated notion, very few colleges even keep data on whether their students are parents. But we know from an analysis of federal data that nationally, one in five college students is parenting, more than a third of Black college students are parents, and nearly half of all Black female undergraduates are mothers.

“Solutions to the student debt crisis have to address the unique needs of student parents as well as the racial inequities that disproportionately burden Black parents.”

As the country undergoes a period of historic racial reckoning, with nearly every sector of society examining its role in racial injustice, higher education needs to do the same. Colleges and universities must look closely at why the burden of student debt falls disproportionately on Black parents. We need to name the racist policies baked into our postsecondary system that contribute to this unequal burden. And we need to acknowledge the oppressive policies that make it unnecessarily difficult for parents of color to earn a degree and to do so without the anchor of crushing debt. Only then can we create and implement policies that support Black families on their journey to opportunity and prosperity.

Why do Black students with children carry the most student debt? First, there’s the racial wealth gap. The average net worth of white families ($171,000) is ten times greater than that of Black families ($17,150), which makes college prohibitively expensive for many Black parents. Second, student parents have more financial responsibilities than other students — costs like child care, steeper rent, more groceries and medical expenses. Third, for students of color, the financial aid process can feel like a maze riddled with unnecessary barriers and dead ends.

Related: The human cost of college debt that becomes ‘purgatory’

Generation Hope, the nonprofit I founded in 2010 to help young parents earn their college degrees while readying their children for kindergarten, conducted a national survey of student parents this spring. Fifteen percent of student parent respondents told us the financial aid office was inaccessible. Of the respondents, Black student parents had the most trouble, with 38 percent finding the financial aid process difficult or very difficult to navigate.

Generation Hope scholar alumna Lakeya and her two sons celebrating her graduation from Towson University in May 2019. Credit: Generation Hope

But the challenges go beyond bureaucratic hassles. In our survey, 75 percent of respondents said their financial aid office did not inform them that child care expenses could be taken into account in determining their financial aid award. Colleges and universities receive federal aid to directly support students’ child care costs via the U.S. Department of Education’s Child Care Access Means Parents in School (CCAMPIS) program. But just 3,300 of the more than 4 million student parents received assistance through the program in the 2016-17 school year. Student parents may also request a dependent care allowance form that allows the financial aid office to increase their federal loans to cover child care, yet this information is rarely publicized. 

Briana, an alumna of our program, explained the experience at her college like this: “I don’t think I would have found any resources unless I sought them out purposely.”

While Briana attended a four-year college, we find that these barriers also exist at two-year institutions, which are attended by 42 percent of all student parents. Similarly, Black students account for 29 percent of all attendees at for-profit colleges, where students tend to have higher levels of debt.

But the good news is that there are solutions. By building state and federal partnerships, improving college and career advising, investing in HBCUs, and addressing the racial wealth gap through policies such as reparations, we can reduce the student debt burden for Black parents. At Generation Hope, we are building a policy and advocacy agenda driven by student parents all over the country that will prioritize removing financial barriers to college completion for Black parents. That agenda will build on the successes of our own organization in helping to reduce student debt for young parents. Thirty-three percent of our Black “scholars” —  current and former teen parents in college — graduate without any debt. That compares with 14 percent of Black students nationally.  

“Thirty-three percent of our Black ‘scholars’ —  current and former teen parents in college — graduate without any debt.”

Generation Hope’s experience shows how access to funding and supportive relationships can make a difference in college completion. We provide each student with up to $14,400 in tuition assistance for up to six years. Additionally, students can request up to $1,000 each year for emergencies, such as car repair or groceries, aid that is delivered within 72 hours. Our coaches on staff work with a small caseload of students, providing personalized guidance and information on scholarships and help in understanding and taking advantage of financial aid. Additionally, in a decade of working with young parents at more than 20 higher-ed institutions in the Washington, D.C., region, we have built relationships with financial aid offices at each school that enable us to advocate for our students when an issue arises.

Solutions to the student debt crisis have to address the unique needs of student parents as well as the racial inequities that disproportionately burden Black parents. Meanwhile, this is a population that colleges should proactively seek to support and retain. Student parents are incredibly motivated to complete their postsecondary education and have, on average, higher GPAs than their nonparenting peers. Today, I hold two degrees and an honorary doctorate, sit on the board of trustees of Trinity Washington University and lead an organization that removes barriers to college completion for a population that is too often overlooked. I have done — and continue to do — all of this while paying down my student loan debt.

As our country reimagines systems and works to build back in response to the dual pandemics of Covid-19 and racism, we can’t ignore student debt and who is at the center of this crisis. By finally confronting this reality, taking action to alleviate the racist policies behind it and better serving student parents, we can transform the lives of parents and their children, entire communities and our society as a whole.

Nicole Lynn Lewis is the founder and chief executive officer of Generation Hope, a nonprofit that provides direct service support to young parents earning their college degrees, advocates nationally for the unique needs of student parents and their families, and partners with colleges and universities to provide technical assistance in order to advance student parent success in higher ed. A former teen mother who put herself through William & Mary with her young daughter in tow, Nicole now works to change the statistic that fewer than 2 percent of teen mothers will earn their degrees before age 30. Her book, “Pregnant Girl,” will be released May 2021.

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