The Loans That Steal Dreams
A Morehouse College graduate's perspective on how the student loan debt crisis contributes to educational and racial inequities.
I recently had a conversation with a colleague of mine, who holds an executive position at our alma mater, Morehouse College. He graduated in 2017 and has gone on to do amazing things. He’s helped raise millions of dollars for Morehouse, a private, historically Black liberal arts college for men, and has received great acclaim for his record-breaking results. In my eyes, he has done exceptionally well for himself and in all honesty, it would be hard not to admire or envy his success.
However, as we continued to speak about his journey after college, the conversation naturally shifted to something I didn’t expect would be an issue for a college graduate with a great job. Although he is extremely grateful for his career, something is standing in the way of maximizing his full potential: his student debt, which costs him almost $1,000 a month.
“My loans are my biggest burden keeping me from taking any leaps right now,” said my friend, who asked to remain anonymous. “How does it feel to be free, Carlos?”
A few years ago, I was gifted the ability to call myself debt-free thanks to investor and philanthropist Robert F. Smith. During his commencement address to the 2019 Morehouse graduating class, Smith committed to paying off the $34 million student loan debt of the entire class. This historic move changed the lives of about 400 Black men and their parents. But most importantly, it intensified a national conversation: Is earning a college degree worth it just to be weighed down by the very loans that were supposed to help set you free?
Approximately 45 million Americans collectively hold over $1.7 trillion in student debt. This growing debt crisis, coupled with slow wage growth and credit card debt, has caused younger generations to be highly risk-averse, according to the Harvard Business Review. After college, many graduates seek the highest-paying job they can find in order to begin the long and arduous process of repaying their loans. This trend shows how student debt weighs on the psyche of “educated” millennials far greater than any other aspiration.
“Is earning a college degree worth it just to be weighed down by the very loans that were supposed to help set you free?”
I find it ironic that a student can leave school with a debt similar to the amount needed to pay for their first home or to fund the very business venture that they sacrificed so much time and effort for. It is truly no wonder so many college graduates have not pursued their dreams.
Because I was debt free, I had the opportunity to pursue any career of my choice. Since graduating, I started a nonprofit, Angelica's Guardian Angel Counseling Service, which provides free mental health services to children and teachers. I also joined the Teach For America Metro Atlanta 2019 corps and taught brilliant middle school students in underserved areas in Georgia for the past two years without the pressure of loans pushing me out of the classroom. And I’ve been able to pursue my artistic endeavors and civic engagement pursuits—something I dreamed of since I was a 4-year-old child growing up on a 79-mile island in The Bahamas. I’ve done so much more than I would have been able to if I had student debt. I was even able to purchase my first home.
Sadly, that is not an option for many college graduates, particularly Black graduates. And this isn’t just about having a place to live. Deferring homeownership often deepens the wealth gap in America because owning a home is a key way to build wealth.
According to recent U.S. Census data, Black Americans have a 44% home ownership rate—the lowest in America—whereas white Americans lead with 74%. Home ownership helps secure financial freedom for generations to come as values and equity increase. Home ownership can also provide new streams of income such as short- and long-term rentals, which can help ease the toll of loan repayments. Putting off buying a home can force many graduates into a lifelong cycle of just “making ends meet.”
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The racial wealth gap—the result of centuries of inequity and injustice—has stifled dreams for far too long. Minorities, particularly Black families, are at the bottom of the ladder in terms of overall wealth. In 2016, the Brookings research group found the net worth of white families ($171,000) is nearly 10 times more than that of Black families ($17,150). This gap is a legacy of slavery and centuries of racist policies and practices—including redlining, the exclusion of agricultural and domestic workers from protections under the Fair Labor Standards Act, and the exclusion of Black families from GI Bill benefits.
The socioeconomic inequity rooted in this nation’s history means that minority families are not afforded the same freedom as their white counterparts. Many minority students do not have the financial backing many of their white counterparts have.
Simply put, $17,000 dollars is not enough money to pay for your child’s education and survive from day to day. The math does not add up.
“Our system still perpetuates the warped idea that earning a degree means you not only must work hard to earn good grades and maintain your mental and physical wellbeing — you must also somehow find the massive resources needed to pay for this education.”
That’s why many of my classmates, such as Elijah Dormeus, borrowed seemingly insurmountable amounts of money to attend college. These hundreds of thousands of dollars of debt, much of it borrowed by parents through federal loans, would have burdened my classmates and their parents for decades. But with his gift to the Morehouse College graduating class of 2019, Smith empowered a group of young Black men to have the opportunity to start our post-college lives on an equal playing field with our wealthier white counterparts. And we’re doing it all while “paying it forward,” just as we promised Brother Smith. Today, Dormeus is using his freedom to motivate the next generation through his own nonprofit, I AM Foundation Inc., which provides mentoring and scholarships to students in need.
Of course what the Morehouse class of 2019 experienced is not a reality for most college students in America today. Our system still perpetuates the warped idea that earning a degree means you not only must work hard to earn good grades and maintain your mental and physical wellbeing — you must also somehow find the massive resources needed to pay for this education.
Student loan reform holds promise for financially unburdening more graduates and reducing the racial wealth gap. Companies, such as Fidelity Investments and Aetna, are tackling the issue by offering their employees options like matching student loan repayment and loan assistance programs. Just this summer, a number of historically Black colleges and universities used federal pandemic relief aid to forgive student balances. And here’s more hope: President Joe Biden’s administration already distributed $10 billion in student loan debt relief this year and made a campaign promise to cancel $10,000 in federal student loan debt for all borrowers.
While Smith chose to directly impact the lives of one graduating class, the spirit of his gift is alive in the progress we’ve seen and what’s on the horizon. His generosity is challenging America to look at the equity of education on a deeper level and truly assess what it means to be on a level playing field — or should I say “paying” field.
Carlos Outten is a first-generation Bahamian-American based in Atlanta who best describes himself as an artist-social activist. Carlos earned his Bachelor of Arts in Theater at Morehouse College in 2019 and has since written plays that have been produced nationally and globally, taught middle school students English in the Atlanta area (Metro Atlanta ‘19), and is now working in the civic engagement arena as a Policy Advisor Fellow for Leadership for Educational Equity. Carlos seeks to do work that raises awareness of social injustices and promotes positive change.
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The opinions expressed in this piece, and all others in our Opinion section, represent those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of the Teach For America organization.