School Debt Heaviest on Low-Income Students

The Project on Student Debt released a report that showed African-American and low-income students carry the heaviest financial load. Robert Shireman, the group's executive director, talk with Farai Chideya about the findings.

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FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

It's reported the average debt for a graduate soared 50 percent over the past decade after inflation, and a recent survey says African-Americans and low-income students carry the heaviest financial load.

Robert Shireman is the executive director of the Project on Student Debt, a non-profit advocacy organization based in Berkeley, California. The group revealed some key findings among African-Americans in regard to student loan payments.

Mr. ROBERT SHIREMAN (Executive Director, Project on Student Debt): The most recent year that we have data is 2004, and for all Americans, those who graduated that year with a four-year college degree, had an average of $19,200 in student loan debts. African-Americans had about $3,000 more on average, so just over $22,000 in debt.

CHIDEYA: In your survey, you find that 84 percent of African-Americans and 66 percent of all adults surveyed say that it's hard to repay student loans. First of all, what do we actually mean by hard? And what are the primary reasons that so many people struggled with paying off this school debt?

Mr. SHIREMAN: Well, as everyone knows, part of the reason for getting a college education is to get a job that earns more money. But just because you have a college degree doesn't mean you're going to be rich nor that it's going to be easy to pay off those loans.

So for any amount of loans there's going to be some people who get that college degree, decide to be teachers, social workers, other very important careers, or it can be a time of recession or they may live in an area that doesn't pay as high salaries, and it means that paying off those loans are a struggle.

We're also entering a period where more and more people are in jobs where they're not getting healthcare and they have other expenses, and that puts a squeeze on middle-class families.

CHIDEYA: Let's take a look at how people perceive the federal government's role. According to your report, 87 percent of African-Americans and 54 percent of all adults surveyed said that the government is doing too little to make higher education more available, more affordable.

Have they actually said to you what they think the government should be doing?

Mr. SHIREMAN: Well, there's support across the board for many different strategies, including maintaining the federal government's commitment to lower income students to make sure that regardless of your background you're able to afford college in the first place. There's strong support for keeping interest rates on student loans low, for providing assistance when loan payments are too heavy and seem unfair. And also support for help when you're paying your taxes in terms of tax credits, some of those sorts of things that are being talked about now.

CHIDEYA: I'm wondering if the debt-load issue figures in a dropout rate that's very different between African-American students and the American population overall. There's a group - the Consortium for Student Retention Data Exchange -they found out that the overall graduation rate for African-Americans after six years is 38 percent, compared with 56 percent for white students.

Do you think the debt makes a difference on that ratio?

Mr. SHIREMAN: I think that financial issues absolutely do make a difference. That ability to really commit yourself and focus on your studies and not be burdened by either work or worries about how am I going to pay the rent or how am I going to pay off these huge loans that I'm taking on?

All of those factors can add on to other worries that may also be academic concerns, but they make it hard to really buckle down and focus on the studies so that you can be successful in school.

CHIDEYA: Well, Robert, really appreciate your time, thank you.

Mr. SHIREMAN: Thank you very much.

CHIDEYA: Robert Shireman is executive director of the Project on Student Debt in Berkeley, California.

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