Black Women’s Mental Health and the Student Debt Crisis
Any moment now, the Biden administration will announce its plan to forgive student debt as the moratorium on loan payments will expire at the end of this month. While mounting student debt is a burden for millions of borrowers, Black women are particularly weighed down.
Black women sit at the nexus of racism and sexism — the gender pay gap and the racial disparities put us at an even greater disadvantage. Black women are paid 58 cents for every dollar paid to a White man. And despite Black women being the most educated group in America, Black women with bachelor’s degrees earn less than a white man with a high school diploma. What’s more, income is not wealth.
No example is greater than when it comes to Black women and student loan debt. And Black women’s mental health is suffering because of the crisis.
In a virtual event hosted by Ed Trust, Black Girls Vote, Higher Heights, and the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) gathered for a powerful panel of all Black women to discuss the student debt crisis and mental health crisis affecting Black women.
After opening remarks from Interim CEO Denise Forte and U.S. Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman, a Black Latina student parent from Massachusetts, Belma Moreira told her story of attending three for-profit colleges and owing over $24,000. The single mom of four saw the interest on the loans skyrocket, while her income could barely afford payments. Despite looking for an employer who would see her worth, “I never saw the income I was promised,” she said. Now 36, Belma is still enrolled in college and studying to become a social worker. Some of her debt was forgiven, and the remaining interest is building up, “but I’m not going to stop giving up my dream.” She thinks all borrowers deserve debt forgiveness. And now that she has a 17-year-old going to college next year, she doesn’t want her kid to fall into the same pit.
“Many people don’t understand the pressure that Black women are under, especially during this pandemic,” said Lakeila R. Stemmons, the national director of Higher Heights. “They say Black don’t crack? Well, we are cracking on the inside,” she added.
Dr. Shamell Bell of The Debt Collective and lecturer at Harvard University said, “Our connection, our stories, our united front, that is our power. As a student borrower myself, $250K for my Ph.D., so I could become a professor. We do all these things to get these jobs, and they keep moving the goal posts. Education should be free. It’s a right. If we free Black women of this debt, we all benefit. The shame and the guilt that we carry, we need to release it. But we need cancellation, not forgiveness.”
Natasha Murphy, chief of staff of Black Girls Vote, said one of the top concerns she hears from college students is mounting student loans. “Matriculating students are anxious as to how they’re going to pay for the next semester. Graduating seniors take jobs that are not their passion to prepare for that first payment six months after graduation. The debt they incur follows them beyond their college career.”
Erma Sinclair from NAMI said the implications of student debt take a toll on Black women’s mental health, especially for first-generation college graduates like herself. “There are broken promises,” she said. “I was promised a certain quality of life. It’s not just about a better paying job, but better quality of life for me and my family. The stressors of debt, depression, anxiety is an isolating experience. Black women feel a generational responsibility.”
Assistant director for higher ed policy Victoria Jackson cited Ed Trust’s recent report on How Student Debt Affects Black Borrowers’ Mental Health and pointed out that Black women are burdened the most by the high cost of college. In 1980, public college was $9,000. In 2020, the average tuition is over $25,000. In 1980, Pell Grant covered more than 50% of the cost of attendance; in 2020, it’s just 28%. Now, Black women owe on average $28,000 for a bachelor’s degree; $55,000 for a graduate degree.
Jackson added that Black women are struggling to manage repayment because the racial wealth gap is much larger than the wage gap. “We have fewer resources. Twelve years after starting college, Black students are not seeing any decline and never seeing that balance go down. Debt can harm mental health: 64% of Black borrowers report feelings of depression, loss of hope, and suicidal ideation due to the burden of their student loans.”
Black Girl Vote’s Murphy concluded, “Canceling all student debt for Black students represents economic freedom, flexibility, and security. And having income limits is a problematic approach. Just because Black women have reached a certain income bracket, those individuals are just as deserving as being forgiven.”
Solutions from the federal government are within reach: the Biden administration should improve income drive repayment plans to make monthly payments more affordable and double the Pell Grant to match inflation to cover today’s cost of attending college.
In the words of Rep. Watson Coleman: “Education is a public good and should be treated as such. We’ve done it with K-12. Surely, we can imagine a 21st century in which higher education is a public good.”
Watch the recorded discussion here.