The Biden administration on Jan. 19 announced that nearly $5 billion in student loan debt would be wiped out for more than 70,000 borrowers, many of them teachers, social workers and others who qualify for income-driven repayment plans.
But a day earlier, 67 organizations, including the NAACP, penned a letter to Education Secretary Miguel Cardona urging President Biden to “keep his promise” and cancel debt for millions of student loan borrowers “experiencing hardship,” including for borrowers of color.
“Failing to finalize a proposal to provide relief for borrowers experiencing hardship would result in millions of borrowers — including most recent graduates, many low-income borrowers, borrowers of color, and borrowers with disabilities — being left out of the necessary debt relief. This cannot be an option,” the letter said.
Student loan debt relief is a ‘reparation’
Support for the Black reparations movement has made progress in states including Illinois, New York and California to address the intergenerational repercussions of slavery. The NAACP told Yahoo News that canceling student debt for Black borrowers can be one of multiple tiers of compensating Black Americans “to rectify historic economic injustices” and to bridge the systemic racial wealth gap to gain access to generational wealth in America.
“Reparations can take the form of various economic initiatives, such as canceling student debt, providing access to capital for revitalization in historically redlined communities, offering tax benefits for Black businesses, and providing fiscal payments tied to slavery in America,” Keisha Deonarine, the NAACP’s director of opportunity, race and justice, said.
The Brookings Institute reported in March 1998 that as recently as the 1960s, most Black, Latino and Native American students were segregated in poorly funded schools and were shut out from many colleges. The NAACP argues that this is part of the legacy of slavery in America and has shaped inequitable outcomes for Black Americans.
“The easy fix is to cancel student debt. That's a reparation because education was not afforded to Black people in this country. So when education for Black Americans was afforded, there came a price tag, a higher price tag than most have to pay,” Deonarine continued.
The case for ‘making amends’ v. ‘legal restitution’
According to the Education Data Initiative — an organization that collects data on the U.S. education system — Black student borrowers owe an average of $25,000 more in student loan debt when they graduate than their white counterparts.
“Young adults, especially from communities of color, should not be penalized for pursuing upward economic and social mobility opportunities,” Satra Taylor, director of higher education and workforce policy and advocacy at Young Invincibles — a student advocacy organization that coordinated the letter to Cardona — told Yahoo News in a statement.
Over half of Black student borrowers report that their net worth is less than the amount of their student loan debt, according to the Education Data Initiative, ultimately creating financial obstacles that can delay life goals and access to saving and investment opportunities like buying a home and affording college to pursue other educational goals.
“I think from a reparations perspective, [canceling student debt] can continue to stimulate the Black economy and continue to uplift the Black dollar because there are monies that are owed into those communities,” said Deonarine.
Christina Laster, a council practitioner for the Hoover Education Success Initiative — a think tank established to improve the educational landscape for children — told Yahoo News that while she is an advocate for reparations, she wants to make sure that civil rights organizations have a clear and balanced approach to compensating for “harm and injury.”
“When we're talking about student loans, we're talking about forgiveness in the sense of making amends for a wrong that maybe has been done or paying money to otherwise help individuals. I don't think both of them are the same. We have grandparents who suffered a harm and injury due to slavery, but necessarily didn't take out student loans. Not all Black Americans have the same experience with their student loan debt," Laster continued.
Young Americans ‘have to envision their own liberation’
According to a 2023 poll from Gallup and Walton Family Foundation, only 39% of Black students — part of a larger cohort of Generation Z who will start or graduate from college, as well as be eligible to vote during the 2024 presidential election cycle — believe that they could afford college. Taylor anticipates student debt cancellation will be a huge factor in the upcoming election.
“From previous young voter engagement in elections, we know young people typically vote based on issues that matter most to them. Our hope is that the administration will take heed to the issues concerning young adults and commit to the promises made to address such concerns,” Taylor said.
In an email to Yahoo News, the Department of Education acknowledged that they have received the letter and will review it.
“The Department’s priority is to support students and borrowers, and is moving as quickly as possible to provide student debt relief to as many borrowers as possible, including through the regulatory process,” the email said.
But the Biden administration says they will forge ahead with a new plan to provide relief after the Supreme Court decided to block his initial $400 billion plan to cancel up to $20,000 worth of student loan debt for millions of borrowers. Laster also pointed out a White House initiative that Biden signed as an executive order in October 2021 to improve “educational outcomes for Black Americans.”
Laster said that while Biden has done all that he could within his parameters, activists — especially the youth voting bloc — should push the Congressional Black Caucus to be a vehicle to drive this kind of change, as well as to take a broader look into the U.S. education system to create structural changes.
“They have to envision their own liberation,” Laster said. “We need to find a way to infuse what they're saying in our demand because they are the rising bloc of powerful voices and voters. I do believe that they can influence Black American outcomes as a voting bloc. The youth have always been at the forefront of a revolution.”