“We already know Black women are receiving degrees at higher levels, but also they’re bearing the burden of the most educational debt. It does not have to be this way.”
“I do not choose the violence of acknowledging my student loans. I just choose to live my life, and make sure I pay my bills.”
Maisha was excited to be accepted into her top choice school: a prestigious university she had always dreamed of attending. She enrolled in college at age 17 and approached her studies with great interest and enthusiasm. Five years and two degrees later, Maisha had borrowed over $100,000 in student loans and entered the profession of social work—a career that earns a median annual salary of about $50,000.
“I’m very grateful to have my education,” said Maisha, a Black woman and first-generation college student. She was thankful to have completed her degrees—something she didn’t think would have been possible without debt. “That’s the part that makes me sad. It’s not the degree that would warn us off. It’s the amount of money we would pay. We would reconsider our whole trajectory in life just not to have [student loan debt].”
Once she graduated and started a full-time job, Maisha remembers the first piece of mail she received: a bill for her monthly student loan payment. “Who the hell do they think has $14,000!? … I haven’t even gotten my first check yet. I don’t even have my degree mailed to me yet. And you are asking me to pay what someone’s salary is. One [monthly] payment which is equivalent to someone’s annual salary.”
Maisha quickly set up an income-based repayment plan, opting to have money withdrawn from her paycheck every month. This way, she could make sure she always paid her student loan bill first. While she has sometimes experienced financial constrains associated with high monthly payments, the toll on her health is concerning. Remembering that she is only paying on the interest makes her physically nauseated—a feeling consistent with research documenting correlations between owing burdensome debt and experiencing health outcomes like anxiety, depression, cardiovascular disease and suicide.
“Think about the fact that … many of us will retire before we pay off our student loans,” explained Maisha. “Those student loans? It takes over your mind. … I don’t choose that for myself.”
As an act of resistance against a predatory system attempting to exact control of her life, Maisha made clear that she rejected this violence by avoiding the temptation to constantly check on her loan balance.
While it can feel isolating to owe debt, Maisha and many other women are not alone in their experiences.
Women hold nearly two thirds of the $1.67 trillion in cumulative student loan debt, and Black women borrow significantly to finance their degrees. Black women borrow $38,000 on average for their undergraduate education.
And 12 years after starting their degrees, Black women owe 13 percent more on their debt than what they had originally borrowed. Labor market discrimination, wage inequality and the real costs of everyday living make it difficult for Black women to pay down the principle. Rapidly accruing interest can easily balloon their debt.
In November 2020, our team of researchers at the University of Michigan School of Social Work began interviewing women age 18 to 40 about their debt and capturing a rare glimpse into the intimate details of the physical and mental health tolls caused by their outstanding obligations. Most of the women we have spoken with for this ongoing study are Black, Indigenous and Latina. Many have obtained graduate degrees and work full-time.
Despite their varied paths and life experiences, the women we have spoken with agree that student loan debt is the most pernicious of their obligations. Not only have women experienced significant, ongoing health consequences, they expect to be paying off their student loans even after they have retired. For some, this debt will remain with them for the rest of their lives.
Scholars like Dr. Tressie McMillan Cottom have long recognized the potential for student loan debt to undermine social security—one of the nation’s most effective anti-poverty programs. In 2015, 37 percent of adults age 65 and older defaulted on their student loans and risked having their social security checks garnished. Social security is the only source of regular retirement income for 69 percent of people in this age group.
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Many of the women we spoke with feared this future; however, they also recognized that, with enough political courage, things could be different. Angelique, a Black woman with two degrees, put it this way, “We already know Black women are receiving degrees at higher levels, but also they’re bearing the burden of the most educational debt. … This does not have to be this way.”
Angelique had done everything she could to avoid financing her education with student loan debt. She held three jobs while enrolled in full-time coursework for her bachelor’s degree, “I really worked myself into the ground until I couldn’t anymore. I was exhausted from working. It was stressful, because I always care so much about what I’m doing, and I knew I needed to work.”
She regularly slept one or two hours each night, sometimes falling asleep in the library while studying—a calculated risk at a predominantly white university where Black women’s public rest and self-care could be deemed threatening. Angelique would wake up and grab a cup of coffee before heading to class or work. She graduated with a 4.0 GPA and was relieved to work just one job in a corporate setting that paid all her bills.
When she returned for a graduate degree a few years later, Angelique received three scholarships that helped cover the costs of tuition and lessened her reliance on student loans. However, at the time of her acceptance, she had not realized all the concessions she would be required to make to enroll in her degree program. Full-time coursework and underpaid internships meant there was little time left in the day for the part-time jobs she needed to pay rent and buy groceries. Despite the desire to avoid overworking herself, Angelique felt like she had little choice given the constraints and requirements of her new degree program.
Angelique quickly ended up in the emergency room, “My red blood cell count was really, really low. You can die when they’re that low. So I had to get a blood transfusion, two bags of somebody else’s blood, which now are presenting new health issues. … Because I had three years of my life that were very stable, it was shocking to me and to my system to going from being able to take really good care of myself to go back into the mode that I had to be in to survive undergrad.”
Not only did Angelique experience severe consequences to her physical health, there have been consequences to her mental health. And like her debt, she anticipates managing these health issues for the rest of her life, “When your blood is this low, depression and anxiety run rampant with this severe level of anemia. There’s a lot of personal sacrifice outside of finances that come with pursuing higher education, which then puts you into debt, which then puts more stress.”
The Feminist Case for Canceling Student Loan Debt
Research shows that the relative wealth gains to Black borrowers from cancelling student loan debt are substantial. The more progressive the loan forgiveness, the greater the gains to Black households’ wealth. These are tangible financial benefits and, given their share of student loan debt, policies that are more progressive would benefit Black women in particular. Black women age 60 and older with a bachelor’s degree have about $11,000 in median wealth—wealth that would accumulate more rapidly if they were not paying so much money to finance degrees only to have the labor market undervalue their worth.
At the same time, President Biden and policymakers in Congress cannot underestimate the benefits to Black women’s health and quality of life from cancelling student loan debt. For Carla, a full-time law student whose side jobs as a nail technician and hair stylist exacerbate her carpal tunnel, cancelling student loan debt would mean she could prioritize her health. Sofía, a healthcare worker in a cancer center whose anxiety about her debt provokes panic attacks, could afford the regular mental health counseling she needs. Physical and mental health are at stake for many Black, Indigenous, and Latina women.
Student loan debt cancellation would have immediate impacts on women’s lives. Women would take care of their health, consider having children, invest in their communities, purchase a home, open a business, and save for retirement. They would no longer suffer the violence of the lifelong stranglehold of debt.
President Biden has called on Congress to cancel $10,000 in student loan debt—a mere fraction of the average debt that Black women borrow for their bachelor’s degrees. For women whose debt is in the six figures, cancelling $10,000 is almost meaningless. Women shared Maisha’s sentiments, who said, “Whatever they give me, I will accept, thank you very much. But that might cover the interest.”
The economic crisis caused by the COVID-19 pandemic makes more urgent the imperative to cancel student loan debt. A disastrous economic report revealed that 564,000 Black women and 317,000 Latina women exited the labor force between January and December 2020. Centering Black women who will benefit the most from debt cancellation ensures that all women share in the benefits of an economic recovery—and may even serve to protect women’s health during the pandemic.
To advance his promises of racial and gender justice and to better ensure an inclusive economic recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic, President Biden should cancel all student loan debt—not just a meager portion of it.
Maisha was cautiously optimistic about the possibility that President Biden would take decisive action, “I don’t want to pay too much attention to it, because if it doesn’t happen, I’ll be heartbroken…But I’m grateful that so many people are talking about it. Because if you want to revitalize the economy, [completely eliminating student loan debt] should be your first step.”
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