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Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders speaks during the SC Democratic Convention in Columbia, South Carolina, U.S., June 22, 2019.  REUTERS/Randall Hill - RC12F501AA10
Brown Center Chalkboard

To boost black students, we should give free college to students who don’t need it

Editor's Note:

This post originally appeared in The Hechinger Report; the version below has been lightly edited for style and content.

A college education is supposed to accelerate economic mobility, not throttle it. The cost of admission into college requires many students to take out heavy loans that slow their entry into the middle class. Sure, a college degree typically pays off in the long run, but low-income students’ financial situations shouldn’t leave them questioning whether getting a degree will meet their immediate needs.

A college degree gives most young people their best shot at the American Dream; it should be as easy to access as elementary or high school. Sen. Bernie Sanders, an independent from Vermont, is targeting the problem of student debt with a proposal to cancel $1.6 trillion in outstanding student loans as he runs to become the Democratic presidential nominee. He’s also proposing a plan for tuition-free college, which would offer relief to people who desperately need it—along with those who don’t.

Sanders’ College for All Act would make public two- and four-year colleges, trade schools and apprenticeship programs tuition free. The program would be expensive. The Sanders campaign estimates the plan would cost $2.2 trillion, to be paid for with a 0.5% tax on stock transactions and a 0.1% tax on bonds. Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.), who announced the proposed legislation alongside Sanders at a news conference on Capitol Hill, stated in a tweet, “The American People bailed out Wall Street. It’s time for Wall Street to bail out the American People.” The Sanders plan calls it a “Robin Hood Tax.”

An eye-for-an-eye funding strategy may not be the most precise approach, but there are only so many places to find trillions of dollars sitting around. A fellow candidate for the Democratic nomination, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), proposed a debt forgiveness plan that would eliminate up to $50,000 in loan debt for borrowers with household incomes under $100,000. Borrowers in households with earnings between $100,000 and $250,000 would receive less forgiveness. Warren would pay for the plan with a 2% wealth tax on those whose income totals more than $50 million.

Some see Sanders’ plan as unnecessarily expensive. “Most borrowers are capable of repaying their student loans,” Mark Kantrowitz, publisher of Savingforcollege.com told CNBC.com. The top 25% of wage earners have about a third of all loan debt. This means the proposal would subsidize people who don’t need it.

Sanders’ proposal certainly appeals to the progressive wing of the Democratic Party, but it could also pull in others that Democrats will need at the ballot box.

If the plan has any chance of passing it must include students who don’t necessarily need the subsidy. At the state level, middle-class parents regularly push back efforts to restrict merit scholarships to low-income residents—include middle-class kids as scholarship recipients, and their parents’ resistance may disappear. This political logic has allowed city leaders from San Antonio to New York City to successfully launch public preschool programs that are expensive, but that voters are willing to pay for because everyone, or nearly everyone, has access to them.

I’ll accept an inclusive proposal if it means getting legislation passed so it can help those who need their debt burden lifted and make college affordable for everyone, including black people who are saddled with loan debt.

Disparities in student debt accumulation are increasingly racialized. Black students struggle with 85.8% more debt than their white peers, according to a 2018 article in the Journal of Sociology of Race and Ethnicity. This gap grows over time, increasing by 6.7% each year after graduation. In addition to taking out higher loans initially, black borrowers pay off their loans at a rate of 3.9% per year, compared to 10.8% annually for white Americans. At private historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs), 75% of students have taken out federal loans, while only 51% of those at non-HBCU private institutions can say the same.

African American college graduates are often more ambitious than whites about furthering their education, but their efforts to get ahead can leave them further behind. Black graduates not only enroll in graduate school at a higher rate than white, Hispanic or Asian graduates, but are also twice as likely to take on student debt when they do so. Forty-five percent of the debt gap can be attributed to enrollment in graduate school.

The long-term consequences of not canceling loan debt are staggering. If disparities in payment continue, black adults will carry 185.8% more in education debt 15 years after graduation. And the debt gap continues to grow in magnitude. Four years after graduation, black students in the 2008 cohort faced $24,720 more in student loans than their white counterparts, compared to the $2,000 difference for the 1993 cohort.

The racialized disparity in education debt is an important piece of the puzzle in the historic wealth gap between black and white Americans. Without substantial family wealth at their disposal, black students are more likely to finance their education by taking out private loans rather than federal loans, exposing them to higher interest rates and minimal consumer protections. For-profit institutions play a role as well—more black Americans enroll in these institutions, which have been criticized for their high tuition and nominal return on investment.

Our efforts to go to college to move up the social ladder in many cases worsen our financial position. Student loans keep many black borrowers from buying a home or starting a business. Education should enhance wealth-building opportunities rather than increase debt.

Many will grind their teeth at the notion of forgiving loans to people who can pay, but should anyone have to take out loans to do what society needs and expects us to do? Wall Street will certainly oppose the plan, but tapping into the entitlement of the middle-class may provide the support to get the measure through.


Marissa Marshall contributed stellar research assistance for this post.

The Brown Center Chalkboard launched in January 2013 as a weekly series of new analyses of policy, research, and practice relevant to U.S. education.

In July 2015, the Chalkboard was re-launched as a Brookings blog in order to offer more frequent, timely, and diverse content. Contributors to both the original paper series and current blog are committed to bringing evidence to bear on the debates around education policy in America.

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