Student loan debt. It weighs heavily upon hundreds of thousands of
Americans. It also is the leading reason African Americans drop out of
college. Yet, surprisingly, a new study shows that indebted Black
students actually are carrying a lighter debt load than their White and
Asian peers. And they tend to come from households that have comparably
According to Life After Debt: Results of the National Student Loan
Survey, recently released by Nellie Mae — the nation’s largest
nonprofit provider of student loans — 69 percent of African Americans
who drop out of college do so because of high student loan debt. That
compares with 43 percent of Whites who offered the same reason for
dropping out. Additionally, 59 percent of African American student loan
borrowers feel “extremely” or “very” burdened by their student loan
“Our survey confirmed what many have suspected: While student loans
have helped millions of students gain access to a postsecondary
education, higher debt incurred from borrowing to cover the increasing
cost of college is becoming more of a burden for some students,” said
Lawrence O’Toole, president and CEO of Nellie Mae.
“In an era when our higher education institutions are striving to
diversify their student bodies and better reflect the makeup of our
population in general, large segments are falling through the cracks
…. That 69 percent of African American students who drop out of
college cite high student loan debt as the reason is a statistic we
need to pay attention to,” he warns.
Yet, the Nellie Mae study shows that African Americans generally
have a lower average, debt level than Whites and Asians. The average
1997 debt level for African Americans was $16,800, compared with
$18,900 for Whites, and $20,900 for Asian borrowers. The debt level for
Hispanic borrowers was $15,800.
The average debt level for all groups was $18,600. In 1991, the average debt level for all borrowers was $8,200.
The study cites the average income level of African American
borrowers — $27,500 — as the highest of the four groups. For Whites,
the average income was $27,400; for Hispanics, $24,200; and for Asians,
Dr. Laura W. Perna, a research scientist at the Frederick D.
Patterson Research Institute of The College Fund/UNCF, said one reason
for the lower debt level among Blacks is that many of them attend
institutions which have lower tuitions — like many of the historically
Black colleges and universities. She also credits the use of grants
aimed at low-income students — like Pell Grants — with helping keep
loan debt lower for many African American students.
Pell grant recipients, as specified by the survey, were found to
have a lower average total debt ($17,900) than non-Pell recipients
(19,300). However, these students were found to have a larger average
undergraduate debt ($12,000) than non-Pell recipients ($10,900).
“From other research that I’ve done in this area, you have to look
at the income backgrounds which people have come from.” said Diane
Saunders, vice president for public affairs at Nellie Mae. “If they
[historically] have come from a lower-income [bracket] and this is for
all races they don’t have as much long-term debt experience in their
family, Therefore, they tend to be more concerned about long-range debt
than someone from at family that is used to dealing with that kind of
“It’s difficult to give an answer [as to why Blacks feel more
burdened by student loan debt] without knowing what the differences are
in family income, in the level of education of their parents — what
was the extent of their disadvantage in the family they come from?”
agrees Perna. “These are things that have to be looked at.
“Because [African Americans tend to] come from lower-income
families, they have greater burdens that they bring with them to
college and more pressure on them. That may explain why they feel the
pressure [of student loan debt] more.”
“The good news,” she adds, “is that … salaries are similar [for Blacks and Whites]. That’s what we want to see.”
Another reason for the heavy sense of burden among Black borrowers,
Saunders speculates, is the sense of family responsibility displayed by
first-generation college graduates, who tend to be from the lower end
of the socioeconomic spectrum.
“If they are the first to get a degree and a good job, they tend to
share the wealth more with their families. They are more apt to give
financial support to relatives,” she says. “You see more of their
income going to other family members.”
Saunders has written three reports for Nellie Mae — in 1987, 1991,
and 1997 — and also did her graduate work in student finances and
access to higher education. She says concern about access issues and
loan fear are even higher within Hispanic and Asian communities.
The survey — which included responses from 1,098 undergraduate,
graduate, vocational, and professional student loan borrowers who began
repaying their loans Between January 1993 and July 1996, 5 percent of
whom were Black — cited several factors which have contributed to the
increased debt. Among them are:
* rising college costs;
* less availability of grant aid;
* increased eligibility for federal loans, which began in 1992;
* a larger percentage of older “independent” students who receive little financial help from their families; and
* starting salaries which were depressed during the wage stabilization that began with the recession of the early 1990s.
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