By Refusing to Forgive Student Debt, Biden Rejects a Tool to Help Black Americans

by M. Anthony Davis

At President Biden’s recent town hall, he was asked a direct question by a voter, who is currently in federal student loan debt, about Biden’s plans regarding the forgiveness of at least $50,000 in student loan debt. Biden gave a straightforward “no” in answer in a response in which he suggested the funds should be used to support early education instead, and he went on to describe his reluctance to assist Americans who have degrees from elite institutions. Biden did reiterate his commitment to free community college.

The student asked the president: “The American dream is to succeed — but how can we fulfill that dream when debt is many people’s only option for a degree?” This statement stands out to me. As a Black American, I know many graduates, who like myself, were forced to take on student loans in pursuit of a degree that would hopefully set us on a path toward building generational wealth for our families. But how will we succeed if we are stuck with insurmountable debt as a reward for our pursuit of a professional career?

It is well known that Black voters played a pivotal role in Joe Biden winning the election. We all sat watching the news channels as votes rolled in from Georgia, where Stacy Abrams led a massive push for Biden votes. It is us, the Black voters, that pushed Biden over the edge. Many of us cast those votes in hopes that policies, legislation, and aid to the Black community would come with a Biden win.

And why would we not think that? Biden ran a campaign that made countless promises to the Black community. He created the Lift Every Voice plan that laid out his ideas and intentions for our community.

However, now that Biden is in office, it seems many of the promises he made while campaigning are not being delivered. To be fair, Biden never directly promised he would forgive  $50,000 in student loan debt. But, the Lift Every Voice plan did promise to “[a]dvance the economic mobility of African Americans and close the racial wealth and income gaps,” and “[e]xpand access to high-quality education and tackle racial inequity in our education system.” The forgiveness of $50,000 in student loan debt would be a major step in delivering those promises to Black Americans.

It is true that Americans of all cultural backgrounds have accumulated massive amounts of student loan debt. But, like many plagues in American society, student loan debt affects Black students disproportionately. These debts are a major factor when former students are attempting to build wealth through homeownership. In fact, according to the National Association of Realtors, more than 80% of people ages 22 to 35 with student loan debt who haven’t bought a house yet blame their educational loans for their inability to purchase property.

If Biden wants to expand Black students’ access to higher education and close the racial wealth gap, canceling student loan debt is a way to kill both birds with one stone. Instead of standing strong on his stance that everyone should have access to free community college, allowing debt forgiveness from the “elite” institutions he mentioned in his town hall would actually ensure that not only Black students, but students from all marginalized communities would have access to high level education that allow them to compete for high paying jobs and build wealth.

When looking at statistics of which demographic groups of students have the most debt after graduation, Black students are in the worst position. While 54% of all student loan debt is owned by white student borrowers, Black student borrowers on average owe $25,000 more in student loan debt than white students. And, four years after graduation, 48% of Black student borrowers owe an average of 12.5% more than they borrowed. This form of predatory lending is leading Black students to accrue so much debt in their pursuit to higher education, that they are not able to climb the economic ladder that led to them going to college in the first place. Black student borrowers are also more likely to struggle after graduation, with 29% of Black student borrowers paying $350 or more in monthly payments.

Biden’s Lift Every Voice plan outlines ways in which he plans to address racial disparities in education. Some of the promises laid out in this section of his plan are directly tied to access to higher education. He calls for improvement of teacher diversity. He plans to recruit more Black teachers, an acknowledgement that having at least one Black teacher in elementary schools reduces the probability of students dropping out. One way to ensure we have more Black teachers is to ensure more Black students have access to universities where they earn teaching certificates without the fear of insurmountable debt.

Another point Biden makes in his Lift Every Voice plan when discussing access to education is addressing the “African American student debt crisis.” His plan names this specific disparity that Black students face. His plan sites a 2018 study by the Brookings Institution that states, “debt and default among Black college students is at crisis levels, and even a bachelor’s degree is no guarantee of security: Black BA graduates default at five times the rate of white BA graduates (21% versus 4%), and are more likely to default than white dropouts.”

If Biden’s plan cites a study that points out racial disparities in student loan debt, why is Biden reluctant to address this issue head-on? The Lift Every Voice plan says Biden will forgive “all undergraduate tuition-related federal student debt from two- and four-year public colleges for debt-holders earning up to $125,000.” The section also states that this applies to individuals holding federal student loans for tuition from historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs). This is a great promise, but when does Biden plan on delivering?

I understand that Biden is still in the early days of his presidency, but we must hold him to these promises. He has said flatly that he has no intention of cancelling $50,000 in student loan debt for Americans. But in his Lift Every Voice plan, he made specific promises of forgiveness to Black Americans. $50,000 in student debt forgiveness would have been a huge step toward fulfilling those promises. Whatever Biden ultimately decides, we must hold him accountable, and we must continue to remind him of the many promises he made to our community while he campaigned.

Editor’s Note: This article originally stated that President Biden had “stammered” through a response to a question regarding forgiveness of student loan debt. We have removed this term from the article.

M. Anthony Davis (Mike Davis) is a local journalist covering arts, culture, and sports.

Featured Image: University of Maryland graduation ceremony, 2014. Photo by Maryland GovPics (under CC BY 2.0 license).

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