September 28, 2023
The October return of mandatory payments on federal student loans will squeeze household budgets for millions of Americans. While public discourse often centers on implications for the national economy, the National Association of Diversity Officers in Higher Education warns this moment could prove catastrophic for ongoing efforts in educational equity and access.
Failures to reach consensus on student debt relief will be most damaging to alumni, students and prospective students who have long faced the highest barriers to higher education and its benefits. A college degree is a principal path to social mobility and opportunity for the most historically underrepresented and vulnerable groups among us. Simply put, the student debt crisis is one of the most significant equity issues of our time.
Consider who bears the heaviest burdens of student borrowing. As the American Association of University Women (AAUW) has noted, women hold almost two-thirds of outstanding student debt in the U.S., just about $929 billion. Women who graduate with student debt owe an average of nearly $22,000 compared to the $18,800 average among men. For Black women with student debt, the number is even more dramatic: an average of $37,558 upon graduation.
Factor in the wage gap — women with bachelor’s degrees and full-time jobs make about 26% less than their male counterparts, per the AAUW — and it’s clear why women take about two years more than men to pay off their student loans.
First-generation college students and those of color also face disproportionate impacts from student loans. To finance their education, first-generation students are more likely to rely on borrowing — including higher-interest private loans and credit cards — compared to their continuing-generation peers, according to researchers at Ohio State University. Meanwhile, Black and African American graduates owe an average of $25,000 more in student loan debt than do white graduates, the Education Data Initiative reported.
The data is clear and indisputable: Ongoing refusals to find policy solutions for student loan debt will deepen the divide between those who benefit most from a degree and those who struggle just to get in the door.
As the necessity of mounting debt obligations pushes a college education further from reach, future students will find it impractical or impossible even to consider careers in the improvement of the academy. The domino effect of implications would be dire.
The National Association of Diversity Officers in Higher Education (NADOHE) is the preeminent voice for chief diversity officers. As the leader of the national conversation on diversity, equity, and inclusion, it investigates, influences, and innovates to transform higher education so that inclusive excellence lives at its core.