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The rising cost of attending college has had a serious impact on the finances of most students and their families, but the burden has been distributed unequally. Various studies point to the negative, long-term effects of taking on education debt, and considering debt levels vary greatly by race and socioeconomic status, there’s concern over how trying to get a college education actually exacerbates inequality in America.
Demos, a progressive public policy organization, published “The Debt Divide” in May to highlight research that points to growing inequality in higher education and how that translates to postgraduate well-being. The 30-page report covers a lot of ground, citing data from Department of Education surveys, the Federal Reserve’s 2013 Survey of Consumer Finances, Gallup polls and other existing research, and some of the figures may give you a different perspective on the state of education debt in the U.S.
1. Black and low-income students borrow more than others to receive a bachelor’s degree.
Among bachelor’s degree recipients in 2012, black graduates from public colleges borrowed an average of of $29,344, compared with $25,807 for white graduates and $23,441 for Hispanic or Latino graduates. For those who earned degrees from private nonprofit schools, debt levels were understandably higher (they’re more expensive, generally), but white students borrowed significantly less than the other two subgroups. Hispanic or Latino graduates took on an average of $36,266 in debt, black graduates had $35,477 and white graduates had $31,508.
There’s a similar gap when looking at the wealth of student borrowers. Students who received Pell Grants (which are awarded on basis of financial need) had higher education debt loads than those who did not receive Pell Grants. For public-school graduates, the difference in debt was $27,307 (Pell recipient) to $22,888, and at private nonprofits, it was $34,206 and $30,089.
2. White and high-income students are least likely to take out student loans.
At public institutions of higher educations, Latino students are least likely to have debt — about 63% borrow, the same as white students, and Latino students borrowed an average of $2,400 less than white students. Other than that, white students have the lowest debt burdens and are least likely to borrow in the first place.
The vast majority of black students use loans to pay for college. Among those who graduated from a public school, 81% had student loans, and 86% of private school graduates had student loans. Latino students at private schools were most likely to have debt, with 87% graduating with loan balances.
The difference is much more stark when you look at income level. At public schools, 84% of students who receive Pell Grants also graduate with student loans, compared to 46% of those who don’t receive Pell Grants, and at private schools, 91% of Pell recipients take on debt (60% of those without Pell Grants took out loans in order to graduate from a private school).
3. Black and low-income students are most likely to finance an associate’s degree.
Less than half (42%) of associate’s-degree earners take out student loans. If they do, it’s more likely they are black and have received need-based aid: 57% of black students who graduate with associate’s degrees have student loans, and 55% of Pell recipients have student loans from two-year degrees. Those students also take on more debt than other people with associate’s degrees.
4. A lot of education debt among Latino and black students comes from for-profit education.
If you attend a for-profit college, it’s highly likely you need student loans to do so: 86% of white students, 89% of Latino students and 90% of black students take out loans to get a bachelor’s degree from a for-profit college. The fact that blacks and Latinos make up a significant portion of the for-profit student population intensifies the debt inequality. Nationwide, black and Latino students account for 29% of college students, but they make up 45% of the for-profit student body.
5. Dropout rates are higher among poor students and black students.
While taking on a lot of debt to earn a degree has its negative repercussions, those people generally reap the benefits of having a college education, which helps with the high debt load. Most people who default on student loans are those who never got their degrees, meaning they have to try to tackle their loan payments without the benefit of higher earning potential. Not only are white and high-income students dealing with statistically lower debt loads, they’re also most likely to graduate.
On the other end of the spectrum, there are black and low-income students who take on the most student loan debt, and they’re least likely to earn a degree with it. Thirty-nine percent of black student borrowers drop out (according to 2009 data), compared to 31% of Latino borrowers and 29% of white borrowers. The greatest gap comes from where the students start financially: Those who are at 200% or less of the poverty line are much more likely to drop out (38% did), while those with family income more than twice the poverty level had a lower dropout rate of 23%.
Student loan debt is a concern among most people these days, but it’s far more burdensome for some groups. When taken on in affordable amounts and managed well, student loans can be a great investment in your future, and repayment can help you establish a good credit history. However, because loan payments can soak up a significant amount of borrowers’ resources, student loan debt can make the many years after graduation less financially productive. Because student loans are rarely dischargeable in bankruptcy, they need to be a top priority if borrowers hope to achieve financial stability and a good credit standing. As the statistics show, that’s a lot easier for some consumers than for others.