The Student Loan Debt Crisis Is Hitting Black Families Hard

Read about how prohibitive costs, racial disparities and many other factors are contributing to the staggering statistics.

When Marcel Jules met his wife, Marian, he was instantly smitten. “I know what God gave me,” he says. “She’s beautiful inside and out.”

Married in 2014, the Austin, Texas couple is now raising their three-year-old daughter in a household filled with laughter and love. Yet one thing they have in abundance that is no laughing matter: massive student loan debt.  

Marian Jules, 41, graduated in 2003 from South Pacific University. Currently a marketing strategist at a tech company, she told BET her college debt exceeds $100,000. As a result, her loans are in default, and her wages have been garnished. 

Marcel, who is 33 and earned a degree from Texas State University in 2010, also amassed a sizeable student loan tab. Today, the hospital IT staffer says his loan accounts are closed, having been written off as bad debt. 

Says Marian, “I want to be honorable about my loans, but paying it off doesn't seem attainable, at this point. We are current on everything else with our bills. It's the loans that are killing us.” 

They’re not alone: Americans have racked up $1.6 trillion in student loan debt, according to the Federal Reserve Board. Multiple factors underscore the student loan debt crisis. Experts blame declining state and federal funding, predatory for-profit schools, plus rising higher education costs. And several recent studies point to structural racial inequalities that shape experiences for students of color.

Marcel Jules and wife Marian Jules with their daughter
Marcel Jules and wife Marian Jules with their daughter

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In July 2019, the NAACP and the Center for Responsible Lending released “Quicksand: Borrowers Of Color & The Student Debt Crisis.” The report cites significant differences across racial and ethnic groups, with some particularly reliant on student loans. More than half of young Black families (with heads of households aged 25–40) have student debt. And according to a 2016 U.S. Department of Education study, African American graduates borrow in 85 percent of cases.

Outcomes have been dire. Black borrowers who entered school in 2003–2004 as undergraduates, nearly 49 percent had defaulted on their loans by 2016. 

Members of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) are among the policymakers who’ve cried foul about the student loan debt issue. Rep. Bobby Scott (D-VA), Chair of the House Committee on Education and Labor, has held bipartisan hearings on Capitol Hill, which he says will inform work on a reauthorization of the Higher Education Act and reforms. “If we do not address the rising costs, not only will [America] lose our economic competitiveness, but a growing number of students and families will lose out on the benefits of college degree,” he said.  

Rep. Maxine Waters (D-CA), Chairwoman of the House Financial Services Committee, presided over a recent hearing about student loan debt.

“More than 44 million people carry student debt averaging almost $33,000. Around 9 million borrowers with federal student loans are currently in default,” she said in opening remarks. “The burden of student loan debt is preventing young people from saving for retirement, starting small businesses, starting families, and becoming homeowners. This crisis is affecting people across the country, and ultimately it negatively affects our entire economy.”

Despite the hardships they’ve faced, the Jules’--who both hail from immigrant roots (Marcel is Haitian-American; Marian is African-American and Filipino)-- still want to attain the American Dream for themselves and their child. Utilizing family support and other resources, they have launched a faith-based clothing line, Cross Reflections Apparel, in hopes that entrepreneurship will be their path to wealth.

Marian has few regrets about her decision to attend college, despite the costs. However, Marcel is less certain.  “I would be lying if I said it was all roses. But where there’s a will there's a way,” he said. “God always provides.”

RELATED: The Connection Between Student Loan Debt And The Racial Wealth Gap

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