Aaron Jackson walked into California University’s career fair dressed to the nines: grey sweater vest, white button-down shirt, multi-colored tie and even a cross-body bag as a finishing touch. If “hire me” were personified, it would look exactly like him (minus the few tattoos and weird rat-tail hairdo).
But as Jackson (played by Trevor Jackson) walked through the crowded fair on the season 3 episode of “Grownish,” Zoey Johnson (played by Yara Shahidi) dropped a bomb.
Via voice-over, Johnson reveals that though higher education promises students these great opportunities, sometimes it only widens the gap between them and their dreams. And usually, it’s black students who suffer the most.
As a black and first-generation college student, I already knew that navigating college and after-college life would be more strenuous than my white peers. I just wasn’t aware of exactly what I was up against.
The show revealed that, by age 30, the average white male college graduate will have paid off 44 percent of their student loans, while the average black male will owe 11 percent more. For black women, that number jumps to 13 percent.
Like me, Jackson’s character had everything colleges said you need to get a leg up in the “real world.” He had a load of community service/extracurricular hours (check), a solid GPA (check) and an overall excellent academic track record (check). Yet none of those things changed the fact that he owed over $100,000 in student loans.
Now, I don’t owe $100,000, but my student loan balance isn’t pretty. As a regular college student, I’ll already have a tough time buying a home or even paying rent. As a black person, there’s a chance I’ll only make 75 percent of what white people earn. As a black woman, on average, we’re paid 39 percent less than white men and 21 percent of white women.
And a career as a writer? Let’s not even get into that.
Gabe Taylor said they didn’t know much about their loans until after they graduated from the Art Insitute in Washington in 2011. The only resource they knew about on campus when it comes to loans was their financial aid office.
“They never really explained to us what we were getting into,” Taylor said. “They just told us we needed money and that they would help us find it.”
Taylor put their loans on deferment for the first few months after their graduation until they could manage their payments. Taylor is one of many black borrowers to defer their payments. According to Inside Higher Ed, Black borrowers who entered college in 2011-12 and had entered repayment by 2017 were much more likely than their white and Latino peers to have defaulted on their loans at some point in those six years. Black borrowers had a deferment rate of 32 percent over all institution types, compared to Hispanic or Latino borrowers at 20 percent and white borrowers at 13 percent.
Working as a loan servicer for six months helped Taylor understand their loans.
“I would advise folks to learn as much as they can about the loans they are taking out. Educate yourself on the different types of programs available for repayment,” they said. “Please, please, please apply for as many scholarships as possible. There is so much ‘free’ money out there. You just have to find it. Don’t be ashamed to start off at a community college if that works better for you financially.”
Angela Pender, a graduate student at ESU, said she found most of her scholarships within her school.
“I would search for them in Stroud Hall where the bulletin board is. That wall is filled with promotions and advertisements, so it’s important to stop by and see which one best fits for you.”
Like Jackson in the episode of “Grownish,” Pender found a gem when it comes to paying for her education: an assistantship opportunity. Graduate assistantships are a paid academic employment opportunity where students can receive tuition waivers or reimbursements for working with faculty members, departments or entire colleges.
On top of free tuition, Pender says this position provided her with hands-on experience that she’s able to take with her into the work field.
“[Graduate assistant] positions provide excelled professional development skills because you work with professionals daily. Depending on your position, it allows you to be creative and make those changes that you wanted to change when you were in undergrad.”
Yet, even with these progressive programs the racial gap in student loan debt still exists. So, how do we fix it?
Well, there is, of course, the cancelation of all student loan debt. But, as much as politicians like Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren have advocated for this, it never seems to happen. With the recent COVID-19 pandemic, the cancelation of student debt is more imperative now than ever.
But, until we get there, there are federal repayment programs that are trying to help. Programs such as the Revised Pay As You Earn Program (REPAYE) allow individuals to make payments on their loans based on their income. The REPAYE payment plan caps your monthly loan payments at 10 percent of your income based on family size. The program also allows loan forgiveness after 20 years of qualified payments, or 25 years, if you’re repaying Grad PLUS loans.
Yet, while these programs can reduce the racial gap in student loan debt, they do not address the underlying cause of it: systematic racism. There’s no law that can undo the decades of racial discrimination and oppression of black people, nor is there one to 100 percent eliminate the racial biases that still exist in America.
Until the people in power are ready to address the discrimination of people of color that is deeply rooted in American soil, we’ll remain in the same continuous loop. When the people of power are ready to admit and take action against the racial barriers that this country is built on, then we will be able to move forward.
But, I think that’s going to take awhile.
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