‘Hey, Biden, want to shrink the racial wealth gap?’ Cancel student loan debt. Here’s a pen. | Calavia-Robertson

As a second-generation Latina and the first in my family to go to college, I remember the days of hustling just so I could afford to. I remember the days — and nights — waiting tables at a string of Miami restaurants, picking up multiple shifts. At the end of each one, I’d give my abuelita all my tips to make sure I didn’t spend them and could cover tuition.

She’d kiss me on the forehead and put the money in a torn, white envelope with the word “escuela” on it. That was it, that was our savings account, our “college fund.”

My parents, both immigrants who arrived in the U.S. in the early 80s, through a lot of work and sacrifice helped me with school expenses as much as they could but with three daughters and two sets of elderly parents to provide for, couldn’t do more; still, they stressed the importance of an education, of the “better life” it would provide.

“Even if it’s one class at a time, keep going,” my mom told me. “You won’t have to struggle later. It’ll all be worth it,” she said. That’s what we grow up hearing: a college degree is the ticket.

I thought of applying for student loans but quickly nixed the idea — “I’m going to be a journalist. Not a surgeon,” I thought. Now, I’m sure if I had taken them, I’d be like many others: still stuck, still paying. That’s why my heart goes out to students, particularly those of color, whose struggles I know all too well.

Instead of eliminating or shrinking income gaps between workers of color and white workers, a report by the Brookings Institution found that college educations “financed through debt” actually further contribute to racial wealth disparities.

For Black students, who take out loans to pay for college, the cost of college “further contributes to the fragility of the upwardly mobile Black middle class,” the Washington D.C.-based think tank said in its study, adding that because education does not achieve income parity for Black workers, the disproportionate debt Black students are taking to finance their education is reinforcing the racial wealth gap.

Yaritza Gonzalez, founder of College Money Chica, an online resource for students of color hoping to attend college debt-free, says many Black and Latino students are unaware it’s even possible.

To date, Gonzalez, 33, has procured about $300,000 — a mix of grants, scholarships and cash offers — for her college education from undergrad to doctorate. (Well, damn…would’ve loved to put that away in my grandma’s envelope!)

Oftentimes students don’t know of all the grants or scholarships available to pay for school, she said. And their parents don’t either.

“So, they end up turning to loans, and then with too many loans, loans with high interest rates or loans that are predatory … with all that debt hanging over their heads, wealth building becomes practically impossible.”

Today, the average white family has roughly 10 times the amount of wealth as the average Black family, while white college graduates have over seven times more wealth than Black college graduates.

For Norma Reyes, an Afro-Latina from East Rutherford, crippling student loan debt has been an impediment “to building any kind of wealth.” In the eight years since her college graduation, Reyes, 33, told me she’s had to work both a full-time and part-time job just to cover basic expenses and pay her loans.

The nearly $110,000 in student loan debt she’s accrued since pursuing a graduate degree in psychology at Fairleigh Dickinson University, a private college in Teaneck, has prevented her from being able to buy a house, open her own practice or afford a wedding.

It’s frustrating to hear all she hasn’t been able to do since getting her master’s diploma. This isn’t what we’re sold on, this isn’t how it’s supposed to work.

Andre M. Perry, a senior fellow at Brookings, says the conversation about student debt cancelation needs to shift from a discussion about a person’s income to a discussion about a person’s wealth.

“The denial of wealth to Black Americans is what’s forced and still forces us to take on more loans. We have to acknowledge past discrimination and look at the root causes of the problem,” Perry said.

Debt cancelation can help ameliorate the racial wealth divide for Black and brown people.

Regardless of after-graduation incomes, the Brookings report notes Black households carry more student debt, which pushes down their creditworthiness — an unsurprising fact when you consider that Black people with a college degree have lower homeownership rates than white high school dropouts.

And what’s more, research from the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis shows that after college graduation, white graduates obtain wealth transfers from their families to help pay for things like the purchase of a home.

Black graduates, on the other hand, transfer their increased post-college income to help their families. Different patterns of intergenerational transfers contribute to nearly three-quarters of Black borrowers’ student loans having a higher balance today than they did originally. Reyes says though her student debt is now in the six figures, she originally borrowed about $80,000.

If the debt were canceled “at least partially,” Reyes said she’d “finally be free.” And “everything would completely change for the better,” she said, adding “and not just for me but for thousands of other millennials, many of color, who are in the same boat.”

An Afro-Latina woman smiling, wearing a yellow shirt.

Norma Reyes, of East Rutherford, said everything in her life “would completely change for the better” if she could “finally be free” of more than $100,000 in student loan debt.

If President Biden wanted to help, he could “with the flick of the pen” cancel the debt through executive action. It’s what many lawmakers like Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, Sen. Bob Menendez, and Sen. Elizabeth Warren have repeatedly urged him to do. It’s also what Sen. Bernie Sanders has long advocated for.

As the emergency deferment period, put in place in March 2020, nears its Jan. 31 expiration, Menendez and other politicians have repeated their calls to Biden to cancel student loan debt up to $50,000 by exercising his executive authority.

This “financial nightmare existed long before the COVID-19 pandemic laid bare the deep disparities that exist for communities of color and low-income communities,” Menendez said in a recent statement. “When you’re barely keeping your head above water, it’s nearly impossible to make a dent in your student loan principal.”

For Reyes and many others, unloading at least part of this burden would be the start of a new, less stressful and more productive life. I’d love that for them.

Daysi Calavia-Robertson may be reached at dcalavia-robertson@njadvancemedia.com. Follow her on Instagram at @presspassdaysi or Twitter @presspassdaysi.

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