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What More Student Loan Relief Would Mean for Black Borrowers

Critics say the current Biden administration plan will not close the racial wealth gap, but it’s a start.

A study by the Brookings Institution found that Black borrowers owe about $53,000 in student loan debt four years after graduation. (Getty Images)

The news that Americans will see thousands of dollars wiped from their federal student loan debt has been met with elation by many — but disappointment by others. 

The Biden administration announced last month that it will forgive $10,000 to $20,000 per borrower, an unprecedented move to ease the nation’s student debt crisis. But those figures are just a fraction of a much larger relief that many hoped to see: $50,000 or more per person. 

Many advocates pushed for a larger figure to help ensure loan forgiveness will narrow the racial wealth gap. Black Americans owe a disproportionate amount of the $1.7 trillion in national student loan debt. As NAACP President Derrick Johnson has said, forgiving at least $50,000 would “fuel upward mobility in the Black community and equitable efforts to close the racial wealth gap.”

But there’s hope in Biden’s groundbreaking move, some experts say.

“Will [the student debt plan] close the gap entirely? No,” said Gregory Price, an economist at the University of New Orleans. “But it’s a movement in the direction toward racial wealth parity.”

Borrowers will be able to apply for forgiveness through an application scheduled to debut in early October and are advised to submit it by Nov. 15. Here’s what you need to know about the $50,000 goal — and how close we are to it. 

Why did advocacy groups pick $50,000 as the target figure for student loan forgiveness? 

That figure reflects data related to the student loan debt burden for Black borrowers. On average, Black borrowers owe about $53,000 in student loan debt four years after graduation, according to a study from the Brookings Institution. The Education Trust found that Black borrowers owe an average of $55,532 in graduate loans, compared to just $27,962 for white people. 

Paying off that debt is pricey: More than one-quarter of Black and African American borrowers pay $350 or more in student loan payments each month, according to the Education Data Initiative. 

The $50,000 target has been floated by prominent Democratic leaders. In a statement, U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., said that canceling up to $50,000 in federal student loan debt is “the single most effective executive action available to provide a massive stimulus to our economy, help narrow the racial wealth gap, and lift this impossible burden off of tens of millions of families.”

Will this student loan debt plan help end the racial wealth gap? 

It won’t. Between subprime mortgages and for-profit colleges, student loan debt is the latest iteration of economic policies that historically harm Black Americans. Barriers to homeownership and other major contributors to building generational wealth continue to affect whether Black families are able to pay their child’s way through school.  

David Canton, director of African American studies at the University of Florida, explains that taking out loans to pay for school became common practice after a pivotal increase in inflation during the ’80s and ’90s. 

“Now students are required to pay for education,” he said. “And African Americans, with the wealth gap, disproportionately are going to borrow more money because their parents didn’t own a home. All of these things are connected.” 

So while the loan forgiveness plan is being well received, it’s not enough to end the racial wealth gap alone, warned Nicole Smith, research professor and economist at Georgetown University. 

“$10,000, or $20,000, doesn’t even begin to even think of covering anything close to touching the racial wealth gap in this country, which was created from years of discrimination and inequality, and racism, compiled onto each other,” she said. “This certainly isn’t going to do it.  

But, Price added, something is still better than nothing.

“Even if I have negative net worth, and a lot of Black households have negative net worths, reducing the student loan debt is less negative, right?” 

Should we expect the federal government to forgive as much as $50,000 anytime soon? 

Some think that the Biden administration’s loan forgiveness plan sets a precedent that makes it more likely to reoccur with enough political pressure. 

But the plan is receiving plenty of blowback from Republicans and even some Democrats for being too costly. Some worry that it will increase inflation, and others are divided on how involved the federal government should be on student loans. Some believe that those concerns and criticism make the prospect of another loan forgiveness action much less likely. 

This first round of loan forgiveness invites a host of questions that still need to be answered, Smith said: “People care about who is going to pay this money? Are we gonna have to increase taxes? This is possibly going to be inflationary.” 

Further, at least one White House official has publicly stated that the student loan forgiveness won’t happen again. “This is going to be a one time thing,” Bharat Ramamurti, director of the National Economic Council of the U.S., said during a press briefing last month. 

What should I be paying attention to next? 

Eligible borrowers will need to apply to have their loans forgiven using a platform that is scheduled to open in weeks

More broadly, questions about the cost of college are becoming a larger part of the national conversation. With no other loan forgiveness program expected soon, Price said he expects more people will question the cost of going to college altogether. 

“I think individually, we are looking to what extent college makes sense to a large swath of the population,” he said. “In other words, given the increasing cost — is it still a worthwhile investment?”