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May 2nd, 2012

Rising student loan interest rates hurt students of color



By Sophia Kerby

Washington, D.C. - On July 1st the interest rate on federally subsidized Stafford Loans will double from 3.4 percent to 6.8 percent if Congress doesn’t act. Though this hike will have devastating consequences on more than 7 million students who currently hold a Stafford Loan, the change will hit students of color especially hard.
The facts below show how students of color depend on financial aid to finance their college education and how they are uniquely impacted by student debt.

• 1. Students are having trouble paying back their college loans. Studies show that only 37 percent of students are able to repay their loans on time. Students of color are more likely to depend on financial aid to attend college and have higher trends of student debt.

• 2. For the first time, student loan debt has surpassed credit card debt in the United States. Student college loan debt is now higher than all credit card debt in the country put together. Nationwide, student debt is at $867 billion compared to credit card debt at $704 billion.

• 3. People of color, particularly African Americans, are graduating with more student debt. African American students in particular are graduating with much more debt than white students. A 2010 study by the College Board Advocacy & Policy Center found that student loan debt levels of $30,500 or higher were more common among 27 percent of black bachelor’s degree recipients compared to 16 percent of their white counterparts.

• 4. Youth unemployment (ages 16 to 24) is higher for people of color, making student debt a significant financial burden. Youth unemployment is highest among youth of color, with rates for African American youth at 30 percent and Latino youth at 20 percent, compared to the white youth unemployment rate of 16 percent.

• 5. Students of color rely on other forms of financial aid, such as Pell Grants, which are also facing significant cuts. Students who will lose eligibility or be cut from the Pell Grant program - a means of access to higher education and social opportunity for low-income families - will likely turn to loans to make up the difference. At a majority of historically black colleges and universities in particular, two-thirds or more of all enrolled students receive Pell Grants, with more than 90 percent of students receiving these grants at eight such institutions of higher learning.

• 6. While educational attainment increases among Latinos, the achievement gap continues. From 2001 to 2011 the number of Latinos with a bachelor’s degree or higher education increased 80 percent from 2.1 million to 3.8 million. But there’s still an achievement gap: By 2012 only 14 percent of all U.S. Latinos over the age of 25 had bachelor’s degrees, compared to 34 percent of whites. A 2009 Pew Hispanic Center survey found the most common reason for the gap was pressure to support their families financially, forcing them to choose between college and their families. This means that low-interest-rate loans are that much more important to Latino youth in completing their college careers.

• 7. More students of color are taking out private loans, exposing them to more financial risk. There was an approximate 16 percent increase and 12 percent increase among black and Hispanic students, respectively, that took out private loans, from the 2003-04 to 2007-08 school years. While federal loans have lower interest rates than private loans, doubling the rate will bring the two closer together, making students of color more vulnerable to defaulting on their loans.
• 8. Students of color are more likely to enroll in for-profit schools, which currently account for nearly half of student loan defaults. For-profit colleges and universities tend to have higher tuition, increased dropout rates, and insurmountable debt for students. This puts economic and academic barriers on students of color, making it more difficult for them to graduate.

• 9. Students of color with higher student debt are left with fewer options. Deferments and forbearances often provide short-term debt relief, but the interest on the loans may accrue and capitalize during the forbearance or deferment period, making the loans more expensive in the long term.

• 10. Student debt hinders students of color from homeownership. Past-due payments hinder borrowers due to lower credit scores and having their wages used for loan repayment. According to the Federal Reserve, fewer young people are getting mortgages - just 9 percent of 29-to-34-year-olds got a first-time mortgage from 2009 to 2011, compared to 17 percent in 2001.

Allowing Stafford Loan interest rates to double would make the cost of college skyrocket - the cost of college for those relying on Stafford Loans would increase by 20 percent. Given that students of color are more likely to rely on financial aid to finance their college education and graduate with higher student debt, increasing these interest rates would disproportionately impact them. We need to focus on making college more affordable, particularly at a time when students need a good education to be competitive in the international economy.

Sophia Kerby is the Special Assistant for Progress 2050 at American Progress.
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