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One consequence of the COVID-19 pandemic is that colleges across the country have cancelled their graduations. For Black families, many of whom would be celebrating their first college graduates, this news is especially disappointing.

Even though most individuals won’t be able to experience all the pomp and circumstance that typically come with commencement, there’s still much to celebrate as more African Americans are added to the ranks of degree holders. In 2008, fewer than 27% of working-age African Americans (ages 25–64) held at least an associate degree. 10 years later, that figure had climbed to nearly 32%. Clearly, we’ve come a long way — so it’s easy to share the joy from those springtime graduation pictures and videos.

But we’re a long way from conquering the injustices behind that struggle. The truth is, scholarships and other forms of financial aid aren’t covering college costs for African Americans the way people might think. More than any other group, Black students are likely to carry student loan debt well into adulthood — and into graduate school, too. Too many grad students take out new loans while deferring repayment and accruing interest on their previous loans — sometimes at higher rates than I pay on my mortgage. 

All of this adds to the nation’s growing student debt crisis — a crisis that poses a significant threat to the steady upward curve of college attainment among Black students. The stimulus package just passed by Congress includes relief for student borrowers in the form of a six-month pause in loan payments, but this isn’t a long-term solution to the crippling debt that many face.

Inconveniently, this crisis comes at a time when we as a nation should be fortifying our talent base. Experts predict that, by 2025, more than two-thirds of American jobs will require a credential (industry recognized certification, certificate or a degree) beyond the high school diploma. Given all the benefits that come to those who earn such credentials, we must continue to focus on boosting college enrollment and completion rates — and that means we must rethink the way students and their families pay for their programs.

It’s also worth mentioning that not all post-high school credentials are created equal. Some are stackable and come with salary gains along the way. But the cost of obtaining others can outweigh their economic benefits if they don’t lead to meaningful employment. And unfortunately, some students run out of money before they finish. Others — those unlucky enough to attend an institution that closes without warning — are left holding the bag. These students, who wind up with no degree and perhaps no access to their transcripts, are still responsible for repaying their loans. And student loans are the only kind of debt that isn’t discharged during bankruptcy.

And funding problems aren’t limited to students seeking their first credential beyond high school. In fact, a new study from the Center for American Progress shows that African American graduate students are the biggest borrowers: 79% take out federal student loans, compared with just 56% of whites. Also, on average, Black graduate students borrow 25% more than their white peers. They may feel they have to, the report suggests, because without an advanced degree, few African Americans come close to achieving the earnings of their white counterparts. Take Black women, in particular. On average, those who have earned graduate degrees are compensated at the same rate as white men with high school diplomas. The economic imbalances are even more pronounced if Black women take on student debt — and worse still if they don’t earn the credential they sought to get.

As you can see, the college affordability issue is multilayered, very complex and in need of serious reform. As we work to redesign the higher education system so that it better supports today’s students, all of us — moms and dads included — must change the way we think about paying for college.  

Maybe your alma mater isn’t the best fit for your son or daughter. Could they get a high-quality, less-expensive degree someplace else? Does a college pedigree matter in your chosen field? What other options exist besides elite schools? Starting at a community college and transferring to a four-year institution is a more affordable pathway that may not require you to take out any loans. Whatever path you choose, it’s important that everyone has options. Taking on some debt is a wise investment if you (1) finish your program, and (2) can get on a career path that allows you to pay off that debt in a reasonable amount of time.

These are the conversations Black families need to have around the dinner table. We must educate ourselves about the array of higher education options that exist and how to best finance them instead of causing long-term financial ruin.

So yes, we've come a long way — but we have a long way to go. It's not over until you win.


Danette Gerald Howard is Senior Vice President and Chief Strategy Officer for the Lumina Foundation, a nonprofit and research organization that is committed to making opportunities for learning beyond high school available to all.