When it comes to student debt, no group of borrowers shoulders more of the burden than Black women.
Black women graduate with an average of $38,800 in debt, more than any other group.
And over time, the problem only worsens. A dozen years after they start college, Black women owe an average of 13% more than they first borrowed. After the same period, white men have paid off an average of 44% of their debt.
Data has shown that Black women need to acquire advanced degrees in order to make comparable wages to other races and to men, said Brittani Williams, a senior policy analyst in higher education at The Education Trust.
Add to that the fact that Black women earn less on average — earning 64 cents for every dollar that white men make — and it becomes even harder to ever get out from under their debt.
“It is encouraged to get as much education as you can,” Williams said. “The unfortunate thing here is that due to student loan debt that Black women acquire, sometimes that college degree does not necessarily equate to higher wages.”
Student loan payments are restarting in October, after a three-year respite. We talked to Black millennial women around the country about how their debt burden affects their lives. Here’s what they shared, in their own words. (Responses have been edited for length and clarity.)
Putting off life milestones
Cambria Hudson, 30, St. Louis
Debt owed: $22,000
I didn’t know much about student loans. I thought, “Maybe it’ll be interest-free or low-interest.” But when I saw the cost and the fees, I thought, “Wow, this is more than I expected.”
What really made me go to college was knowing that I would be able to be somebody. I’d be able to make more money. I know a lot of people who didn’t go, and they don’t make as much. I thought I could maintain a lifestyle that I thought I deserved. I was in the engineering [program] at the University of Missouri. I thought I would do environmental, but I started to not like it. Then my friend told me about a program at Lindenwood, and I ended up transferring for cybersecurity. Before I graduated, I started working a full-time job. I had to slow down on my classes, so I would take only a few classes a semester instead.
When I started to pay my loans back, I just stopped spending as much. It’s hard because most of the time you have to think about what is in your budget. There are a lot of things I don’t do. I’m thinking about moving soon. The interest rates are high. If I want to get a new car, I have to factor all of those things in. Right now, it just wouldn’t be a smart decision. Even marriage costs money! I used to go out to eat all the time. I cook at home more. I only spend on things that I really want.
It is better to make [the payments] now and be done with it. Nothing is guaranteed. I pay about $100 monthly. I wanted to pay my loans off sooner. [During the payment pause], I paid every month just so I won’t owe as much. I did that by picking up extra hours at my job.
It’s harder for Black women to find jobs. Compared to my friends of different races, they can have no experience and land good jobs. No experience. I’m like, “How did they get that job?” We have to jump through a bunch of hoops. I have a cybersecurity degree, and I do not work in cybersecurity. Why? I don’t know. I applied for jobs. I have a few certifications. It is still hard. One job, someone referred me to and their friend had also gotten hired. They graduated in the same year as me. They were starting off around $80,000. I was interviewed for the job. I was offered $62,000.
“Honestly, I’m very carefree”
Kioma Renaux, 32, Fort Washington, Maryland
Debt Owed: $41,000
My parents did not go to college. My dad is actually from another country. It was more work ethic. He moved to America. He purchased homes. He rented out his properties. He was a business owner. But he still motivated us to go to school. He gave us incentives to get good grades. My mom was that PTA mom. Always in the school, making sure everything went well. She was there studying with us and writing flashcards. They were big on education. It was what you did after you graduated from high school. You go to college.
My undergrad was a process. At first, I went to Johnson & Wales University, which wasn’t the school for me. I didn’t realize it was kind of like a vocational school. I just thought it was a typical college. I ended up going to Lonestar in Texas, a community college. From that community college, I realized that none of my credits would transfer over from Johnson & Wales. It was so specialized.
I ended up switching again [to the University of Texas at Austin]. I switched to education. I work with kids really well. There was also a teacher [forgiveness program], and that motivated me to say, “OK, they’ll pay for school if I become a teacher.” That was one of the biggest things, I didn’t want to have to ask my dad or anyone for money. The teacher grant allowed people who were in the field to have [$17,500] in loans paid off after five years of working at a low-income school. It motivated me to go into the field that I went into. I haven’t utilized that yet. I have all my paperwork to submit, but I’m nervous.
At the end of it all, my total for my loans were around $40,000. The biggest hurdle came when it was time to repay.
I went to different workshops and seminars. I work with the D.C. government, and they have different webinars for the Public Service Loan Forgiveness and repayment plans. They were really big on income-driven repayment plans, so I applied for that one. Because I was in Texas, [payments] were $10 per month. That’s nothing. I’ll pay this for 120 months and then have my $40,000 forgiven. But that price changed [when I moved to D.C.]. From $10 to $291 a month.
That’s $300 extra that could go towards groceries. It could go towards my daughter’s ballet classes. It could go towards dentist appointments or co-pay for doctor appointments. If you calculate that, do $291 times 120 and that’s $34,920 that I would have to pay in order to get my $40,000 worth of loans forgiven. Why do we have to pay so much for doing this service for the public?
Honestly, I’m very carefree. I don’t think about it. I know people who have loans that are like $100,000. I’m just grateful I’m not there. I’m a single mom. I own a home. I own a car. I have other stuff that is above paying my student loans.
Giving up on the dream of law school
Ashley Pullum, 36, Philadelphia
Debt Owed: $120,000
“[College] was more of my own desire. For me, it was the career aspect. I knew I wanted a professional career, although at the time I didn’t realize it would be education. I transferred to Temple [University], and I became a history major. I will say it was a learning curve. That’s for anyone in college, but I think it’s more burdensome when you don’t have exposure to it before going to college.
I remember one semester, I failed a science class, and so I retook it in the summer. I got a private loan for that. I already had loans before I even got to graduate school. I was aware that loans were something I had to pay back. I had an assumption that I’d easily pay them back. When you’re young, you just think you know it all, but then you realize you don’t.
I graduated in ’09, which was smack in the middle of the recession. I had taken the LSAT, and I didn’t perform as well as I would have liked. I was about to graduate, and it was like, “Well what are you going to do?” I began working at an agency for special needs adults, and then I went into education from there. I went to a graduate program for elementary specification, and that’s what led me working in the field.
Once I graduated, I realized what I really got myself into. So I was like, “OK, so what am I going to do to pay these off?’ I was living in the DMV [District of Columbia, Maryland, Virginia] area at the time. I was being a little irresponsible with money. But eventually, I found different ways to make additional money. I worked at a private school for special needs children. There I learned about applied behavioral analysis, which is a subsection of special education. Literally, I worked all day as a teacher, and then did additional work after work. At first, I was a technician working directly with kids, and then eventually I became a behavior analyst and had my own cases. That’s when I started saving money.
I just thought, “How can I clear out debt?” I had to figure things out. I’d watch things like [radio host and financial-advice author] Dave Ramsey, though I don’t completely agree with everything he says. I’d listen to a lot of podcasts like “Earn Your Leisure.” I moved from D.C. about three years ago. It was in the midst of COVID. The cost of living in Philly is much different than D.C. I spent most of COVID just saving money because there really was nowhere to go. The summer of ’21, I purchased a place here in Philly. I paid off my car. I still pay my student loans. I’m on a repayment plan, which means nothing because my student loans are significant.
I briefly did a semester of law school, but I was like, “Yeah I don’t know if I want this debt.” I made the decision not to return. It’s stressful, and ultimately I don’t know if it will pay off. I don’t need to go to law school to have a career. I had to come to that realization.
This story was co-published with Capital B, a Black-led, nonprofit local and national news organization reporting for Black communities across the country. Visit them at capitalbnews.org or on Twitter @CapitalBNews.