Between 1980 and 1985, the Reagan administration slashed federal funding for American college students as “a drain and drag on the American economy.” By this time, the administration’s racist caricature of “welfare queens” ― lazy Black mothers living off the generosity of taxpayers — had become a powerful hallmark of President Ronald Reagan’s campaign and politics.
Those efforts to demonize communities in need as “tax eaters” dovetailed into toxic policies that continued to terrorize and bankrupt Black women ― especially Black mothers ― for decades.
As the Department of Education rolls out debt relief applications to borrowers this month, now is the time to have honest conversations not only about the communities most impacted by the student loan crisis, but also the partisan politics that obstructed college affordability in the first place.
Black women borrowers occupy a precarious position within the American education system. Black women seeking degrees are more likely than any other demographic group to rely on student loans, and Black students as a whole possess more student loan debt on average than any other racial demographic.
Black parents specifically carry higher levels of student loan debt than any other group. This particularly affects Black women: 40% of Black women students are mothers, according to a report from the Institute for Women’s Policy Research and Ascend at the Aspen Institute.
Even with a degree in hand, disparities in the labor market leave Black women with lower wages and higher rates of un- and underemployment than similarly educated white peers, complicating any attempt to dig themselves out of debt.
Some students ― including many parents ― don’t end up with a degree. Roughly half of college students with children drop out of college without a degree within six years, according to a 2019 report from the Government Accountability Office. The same report found that Black student parents make up an estimated 23% of the total population of undergraduate students with kids.
This creates a complex equation: how do you support your family without a postsecondary credential and with significant student loan debt? These historic prejudices create a condition in which the promise of higher education to generate economic mobility can never be fully actualized for Black women and mothers. Rather than offering these students means to level the proverbial playing field, the pursuit of a college degree too often throws Black women into an inescapable debt spiral. No matter how hard they work, these conditions remain.
The growing unaffordability of a college education has just exacerbated this problem. The Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce recently reported that the average price of tuition, fees, and room and board increased 169% between 1980 and 2020.
This increase is a direct result of Reagan-era cuts to federal higher education spending, which slashed more from student aid than any other federal program. Moreover, Reagan accrued political capital by neglecting students in favor of keeping taxes low, creating an attractive model that inspired many state-level elected officials to adopt similar policies.
“Rather than offering these students means to level the proverbial playing field, the pursuit of a college degree too often throws Black women into an inescapable debt spiral.”
While Reagan’s administration was creating and promoting baseless caricatures of impoverished Black women, it was also fortifying structural conditions that would restrict their earning potential.
Fulfilling his campaign promises, Reagan slashed $594 million in student assistance and $338 million in Pell grants. Pell Grant funding for students from low-income families used to cover about 80% of the cost of a degree from a four-year public college. Today, the funds only cover about a third of the cost, falling 63% since 2010, from $42.3 billion to $26 billion in 2021.
By the time I started college in 1999 as a young Black mother with a nearly 3-month-old baby, I felt the weight of both the financial impossibilities and the dangerous stigmatization of my situation. There were days when I had to go hungry so my daughter could eat and days when I felt people’s disapproval following me around the grocery store ― all of this while staying on the Dean’s List at William & Mary.
Not much has changed for the 3.8 million college student parents across the U.S. today, who make up more than one in every five undergraduate students, according to the Institute for Women’s Policy Research and Ascend at the Aspen Institute report.
For these students, exorbitant tuition costs are a constant financial and psychological burden, distracting them from their studies, their work and their families, making them 10 times less likely than non-parents to graduate with a bachelor’s degree within five years. Yoked with exorbitant loan debt without the benefits of a degree, these students are chronically overlooked and under-supported.
Mercedes Stokes is a young Black mother who struggled with low income while in college. Contrary to the strawman about students drawn by conservative pundits, Mercedes ― like the majority of student parents ― is not an educated elite capable of covering tuition costs outright.
Even after earning a college degree, higher earnings can be hard to come by for student parents like Mercedes, most of whom are already struggling to piece together adequate support for their families.
“Something that I face even as a college graduate [is that] I’m scared of failure,” Mercedes said. “I know I’ve completed college, and before getting my degree, I always looked at jobs in my career field and said, ‘once I get my degree I’ll be making money. Once I apply, they’re going to accept me.’ But some jobs, you can have all the qualifications, and they’ll still say no to you. So just hearing ‘no,’ but getting over that hurdle is something that I continue to face.”
The reality is that canceling student debt benefits everyone, especially those who have been pushed to the fringes of higher education for too long. It promises to be an essential tool in decreasing the racial wealth gap while increasing the gross domestic product by an average of up to $108 billion a year for the decade following, according to a 2018 study. Many economists agree that when Black women are given wage parity and are free from predatory loans, the entire nation profits.
Biden’s plan to cancel student debt takes a necessary (though painfully belated) step toward remediating decades of tuition hikes and cuts to the funding that could have ― and should have ― been a lifeline for students in need. This forgiveness, however, is only one step. We must use this moment to advocate and strategize around finally making college affordable for all.