We’re telling the untold stories of women, women of color and LGBTQ+ people. Sign up for our daily newsletter.
It took Nichole Herring 10 years after graduating college before she could begin to pay down her $45,000 in student loans regularly. Then came the pandemic.
Herring, who started working in communications for education nonprofits not long after graduating in 2009, was out of work for 15 months. In that time, she made more than 150 calls to unemployment offices in Virginia and Washington, D.C., to try to access the benefits she was owed. But her applications were never processed. In that time, some relief came from a pause on federal student loan payments, but she still had to make payments on her private loans. She could make only a couple as she depleted her savings and took on additional debt to make rent. Five of her family members died due to complications from COVID-19. She applied to 1,000 job openings — at least.
In November 2022, one finally clicked. She took a job in internal communications at a regional education nonprofit, accepting a lower salary than her last job and a 60-mile one-way commute.
For her, college held the promise of economic mobility. That promise has been broken many times over.
“I was always aware as a Black woman … how my generation has seen this backslide in socioeconomic status, the amount of us who were raised working middle class or middle class who find themselves below where their parents were. I was lucky I wasn’t quite there,” said Herring, 36. “And I look up and I’m like, ‘No, I’m there.’”
Student loans have been the barrier to economic mobility for Black women, not the on-ramp. And the shadow of debt is creeping closer as repayments on federal loans are set to start again in October.
- More Like This:
Already, Black women earn 64 cents compared with the White man’s dollar. Thursday, which marks Black Women’s Equal Pay Day, recognizes that disparity. The weight of student loans is a key part of why that disparity exists. It could grow even larger in the wake of a pair of Supreme Court decisions reversing affirmative action, ending race-conscious admissions at most colleges and universities, and blocking the Biden administration from canceling student loan debt for 40 million borrowers.
Already, Black women — who pursue education at higher rates than Black men — hold the highest debt of any group: $38,800 on average for an undergraduate degree and $58,252 on average for a graduate degree alone. When they earn at least a bachelor’s degree and enter the labor force, Black women and Latinas’ pay are the lowest among similarly educated people from other racial groups. Black women are also the most likely to have caregiving responsibilities such as being student parents, which makes them more likely to borrow additional money while having to navigate child care costs.
For Black women, “it feels like the dream that’s being deferred constantly,” said Ashley Gray, a higher education consultant. Gray has a bachelor’s degree in African American studies and a master’s and doctoral degree in higher education with an “extremely high amount of debt” as a result.
For Herring, it’s an exhausting cycle, she said.
“More than anything, I want to rest,” Herring said. “But I can’t be at that place until I’m making enough money to live.”
Advocates fear the recent Supreme Court rulings will, at best, keep the pay gap between Black women and White men stagnant, or at worse, widen disparities by discouraging Black women from pursuing higher education or limiting the college admissions opportunities they do have access to.
“What happens when students enroll and continue to not see themselves, and continue to have to make sense of the value of higher education?” Gray said. “I’m afraid this becomes again what higher education was founded to be: It was supposed to be a space for elite White men, and I'm afraid that we are headed back there full speed.”
The Supreme Court decisions will probably have ramifications on the broader labor force, said Janelle Jones, the chief economist at the Service Employees International Union and the former chief economist at the Department of Labor, the first Black woman to hold that post.
“We know how this is going to play out. They’re gonna have debt, that's gonna take longer to pay off, it lowers their wealth, and it's really like a circle, right? It just circles back around,” Jones said. “We still very much believe in this narrative, this higher ed gospel where we tell people the only way you can get economic stability and security is to go to college, and we see that promise has not paid off for Black folks in this country. Even when it has, we are enshrining ways that will make it much harder or almost impossible for a generation of folks.”
Instead, lower wages are saddling Black women with debt long after degree completion. Even just a year out from graduation, Black women have 36 percent more undergraduate debt and 69 percent more graduate debt than White women, according to an April 2022 study by The Education Trust, an advocacy organization focused on racial justice in higher ed. Eliminating the pay gap could give Black women enough money to pay off the average student loan debt in less than two years, the National Partnership for Women and Families found.
“It is difficult for Black women to attain wealth when they are not being paid the same and they are taking on more student loan debt to acquire higher education,” said Brittani Williams, a higher education senior policy analyst with The Education Trust.
Pipelines to better opportunities with higher pay could be even more difficult to access following the Supreme Court’s decision to reverse a 1978 decision that allowed colleges to factor race into the admission process. Experts believe the decision could gut college diversity, equity and inclusion departments, making it more difficult for women of color to enter elite universities — and, by extension, the jobs that education could afford them.
“Even though institutions have been putting out information that they are going to do all they can to ensure they have an inclusive student body, the fact of the matter is we know it’s going to have a negative impact because there are so many other institutions that will see it as an opportunity to not provide opportunities for students of color,” said Gloria L. Blackwell, the CEO of the American Association of University Women. “They may indeed need to take on more debt, attend less resourced institutions where Black and Brown students already go and then come into a workplace where those structural inequities are still firmly in place.”
Some states are already pushing to end DEI initiatives at colleges, initiatives that have been vital in ensuring students of color can attain better employment opportunities. That would come on top of the high rates of employment discrimination Black women are already experiencing — two-thirds report experiencing racial discrimination at work and half report gender discrimination — factors that have exacerbated a pay gap, even for those with a college degree.
Ronnika Williams grew up knowing she was expected to go to college. In the summers, her father would have her and her siblings work with him in an automotive factory in Michigan “as his way of saying, ‘You need to get a degree,’” Williams recalled.
She went to school for a bachelor’s degree in history, and then decided to go for a master’s degree in library science to pursue her passion of working as an archivist, a job she needed a secondary degree to qualify for. When she graduated in 2014, she got a job in her field as an archives manager at a library in Dallas — but the pay started at $30,000 for a job she was often working more than 40 hours a week in.
“Once I got there, I would hear my grandmother's voice when I would tell her, ‘I don't talk to you as much because I’m working so many hours,’ and her response was, ‘We gotta pray you out of that job,’” Williams said. She was laid off within a year, tens of thousands of dollars in debt, and returned to Michigan.
By then, Williams left the field to work for a nonprofit instead, where she was paid $14.50 an hour to start before she moved into a salaried position at $42,500. The same money was offered to another man with less experience and education, she said. It reminded her of the times when she’d changed her name on résumés — to Ronnie or RJ — to try to get more attention from hiring managers who might be expecting a White man.
- Read Next:
At the end of 2021, Williams decided to finish a second master’s degree in history that she hoped would help her secure higher pay. But she now has six-figure debt and hasn’t been able to use her degrees. She’s been working in consulting instead.
“I don’t even like checking my credit report — I don't want to see the amount of debt I have. It’s not moving. What’s happening?” Williams said. She hoped that the Biden administration might provide a way out, but when that was blocked she was left in the lurch. Now she’s looking ahead at the restart of repayments on federal student loans and how that could set her back further.
“It’s just been kind of like, ‘Gosh, is it ever going to be enough to pay off that debt?” she said. “I don’t want my debt to keep me from living. This isn’t what my dad wanted for me.”
Linda L. Hampton, the CEO and founder of Training for Reigning, who focuses on offering credit education, said that the Black women who are the majority of her clients are wondering how they will be able to restart payments. She advises them to speak to their loan servicer to try to find a better repayment option, negotiate interest rates or consider refinancing their loans through a private lender with a lower interest rate.
Hampton’s focus is to try to help folks avoid harming their credit, which has ramifications if they want to buy a home or a car.
“The impact that the student loans have on their credit: It hinders them, it stops them and stagnates them, which is why they aren't able to move forward,” Hampton said.
Many of the Black women she works with also have caregiving responsibilities, an important piece of the story on why they take on more debt and take longer to repay it.
About 40 percent of Black women in college are also parents, the highest proportion of any group, according to the Institute for Women’s Policy Research.
Brittani Williams, the higher ed policy analyst, was a student parent when she was pursuing her undergraduate degree.
“I didn’t have affordable child care on campus, my class schedule was very difficult to navigate and I also worked nearly a full-time job — I worked 30-plus hours a week, as well as being a full-time student,” she said. “It was extremely difficult to navigate all those things.”
Caregiving is often the reason Black women can’t complete degrees, she added. The student loan debt conversation often misses those people who start degrees but can’t complete them, leaving them with the debt but without the degree that could give them some higher wages, however marginal.
- Read Next:
In the wake of the Supreme Court decisions, those factors need to be considered together, Brittani Williams said. “The policy window for this student loan debt conversation opened up very widely with the onset of the pandemic and even with the SCOTUS decision,” she said. “We can’t become hopeless here.”
For those still wading through the fallout, it can feel daunting. Herring would like to get a master’s degree in internal communications, the field she is working in now, and is wondering if that is the true path to economic security for her.
But she can’t entertain the idea.
“I'm just not at a place where I want to take on a cent more debt,” she said. “I’m just stuck.”