SYLVIE DOUGLIS, BYLINE: NPR.
(SOUNDBITE OF DROP ELECTRIC SONG, “WAKING UP TO THE FIRE”)
DARIAN WOODS, HOST:
Aniya Morina first discovered psychology in high school.
ANIYA MORINA: I fell in love with it and just learning how the brain works and how, like, people operate and stuff and why they do the things that they do.
WOODS: So Aniya got her bachelor’s in psychology. And she’s now working as a case manager with homeless young people in Baltimore.
WAILIN WONG, HOST:
But the pay isn’t that great. She really wants to become a licensed therapist working with children – a solid professional job. But to do that, she needed a master’s degree. So she decided to go back to school on her nights and weekends. And a couple of years into the program, her combined student debt from her bachelor’s and master’s has spiraled up to $128,000.
MORINA: I really don’t think I will be able to pay that, like, after I graduate. I don’t think I have no choice but to default.
WOODS: I mean, that’s a very big decision – right? – because a default could affect your credit and your ability to apply for loans.
MORINA: Everything, everything – it affects everything.
WONG: Aniya is facing one of the toughest dilemmas of her life. And it’s a dilemma that many other Black students like her face because Black borrowers are defaulting on their student loans at a rate up to around three times higher than that of white borrowers.
This is THE INDICATOR FROM PLANET MONEY. I’m Wailin Wong.
WOODS: And I’m Darian Woods.
Nobody wants to default on what they owe. But according to one estimate, 2 out of every 5 Black borrowers will default on their student loans after 12 years. Today’s show – what’s causing Black student loan defaults?
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
WOODS: When Aniya Morina first explored master’s programs in psychology, she knew she wanted an online school. Aniya had a full-time job, and she wanted courses that could work around that. She saw a list that showed Capella University was among the top online schools. It’s a for-profit university, and the website looked like it could be for her.
MORINA: You’re not used to seeing a Black woman or an Asian woman, like, on the front page. And when I saw that, I was like, oh, OK, you know, they’re a little diverse. These are things, you know, that we’re not used to seeing.
WONG: There was a form to put in your name, email and phone number if you wanted to learn more. And then all these random phone numbers started to call her.
MORINA: They were heavy on it, yes. And, you know, it was like, somebody calling from Capella, and they just wanted to talk to me for a little bit. So I said, oh, my God, whatever. So I finally called him back, and he was, like, really sweet and stuff, just telling me all the great things, you know, about Capella University, you know, how they’re accredited, they have residencies and stuff. Like, just a lot of people would help support you through this.
WOODS: The guy talked about potential scholarships, how she could finish in two years’ time. And eventually, Aniya was like, yeah. I mean, they want me. I want the degree. The website seems to imply that the program is affordable. But, of course, she needs to gather the money first.
WONG: Aniya says that borrowing from family was out of the question, and she didn’t end up getting any of those scholarships. So Aniya borrows about $20,000 for the first year, adds it to her $40,000 undergraduate student loan. She completes her first-year courses. Everything is going great. But by the end of her second year, Aniya is way behind where she wanted to be. She realizes there’s all these extra courses she needs to take. She’s staring down the barrel of having to fork out for a third year. And by now, her total student debt has ballooned to $128,000.
WOODS: You expect that you’ll pay them off in the next 10 years here?
WOODS: Why not?
MORINA: I don’t think I’ll have the money to pay them off. And on the salary that I make as a case manager, no, no. Like, and if I eventually get my license, you know, that takes a while to get, too.
WOODS: Aniya is left wondering when she’ll even be able to finish this master’s degree. And she’s seriously thinking about defaulting.
DOMINIQUE BAKER: As I kept reading more and more, this just kept being a theme. And so I was like, well, I got to know more about this. What’s going on here?
WONG: Dominique Baker is a professor of education policy at Southern Methodist University. And Dominique breaks down the reasons why Black borrowers are more likely to default on their student loans into three main categories – before, during and after college.
WOODS: So before college, Black students are more likely to grow up in a neighborhood that doesn’t have as much resources for schooling and has more pollution like smog from a highway or lead in the water.
BAKER: Those areas are more likely to be near where Black and brown people live. Areas that are unsafe physically for people – those things are directly, causally linked to students’ achievement in schools.
WONG: And so when it comes time to apply to college, Black students are less likely to get into well-endowed colleges that can offer more scholarships and financial aid.
WOODS: One particular type of college that Black students are more likely to go to is what’s known as for-profit colleges, like the one that Aniya applied to. This could be a trade school for something like cosmetology, or it could be an online university offering bachelor’s degrees.
BAKER: For-profit institutions, which typically are the institutions that have the fewest amount of dollars that are going toward trying to help students afford attending them, those institutions are frequently serving Black students and frequently serving Black women who are trying to find more economic stability in their lives.
WOODS: Just listen to this ad.
(SOUNDBITE OF COMMERCIAL)
TYRA ANDRE: Having to juggle being a single mom, working full time, I just needed to fit school in where I could fit it in.
My name is Tyra Andre, and I’m really excited to tell you that I just got my MBA with Capella University.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
WOODS: For-profit colleges have faced a lot of criticism for their recruiting. Fifteen for-profit colleges were cited by the Government Accountability Office in 2010 for making deceptive statements to potential applicants. And while Aniya’s college, Capella University, was not part of this sweep, Capella has faced similar criticisms. In April of this year, Capella University settled a class action lawsuit that alleged that the university lied about its graduation rate and how long it took to graduate. Capella settled this through private mediation. We asked Capella for comment. They did not get back to us. But at the time, Capella said in a statement that the lawsuit was without merit.
BAKER: The advertising that’s done exceptionally well helps to funnel Black people, and in particular Black women, into enrolling at institutions that are not necessarily very affordable for them and then don’t necessarily pay off.
WONG: And once a student has chosen where to enroll – maybe at a for-profit university – borrowing from family is typically harder for Black students. Intergenerational wealth is a lot lower for Black families.
WOODS: This wealth gap starts from the legacy of slavery and segregation. Also, the GI Bill after World War II – this gave veterans free college and cheap mortgages. But in some states, Black veterans couldn’t get those benefits. And now, Black families face higher incarceration rates and still face discrimination in the labor market. Less family wealth means more student loans.
WONG: So that’s before a Black student even enters college. And once the student is there, the inequities continue. So one example – major selection. Your major is important for how much you’re likely to earn and how easy it’ll be for you to pay off your debt. More lucrative majors like, say, engineering might be off-puttingly expensive or require a higher SAT score.
WOODS: And the cards are still stacked against Black students even after graduating.
BAKER: We have very good research that Black people with college degrees are still treated differently than white people with college degrees when it comes to the labor market.
WOODS: And when repaying back your loan, depending on your situation, you might be eligible for debt relief or a restructure. But that means expecting yes when you pick up the phone and ask for it. Dominique says that Black borrowers on average will be less likely to do that.
So you add together these constellation of factors before, during and after college, and it becomes clear why Black borrowers are more at risk of defaulting on their student loans.
WONG: As for Aniya, she’s in limbo at the moment. She wants to finish her master’s degree, but she’s not sure she’ll be able to.
WOODS: What advice would you give yourself a few years ago?
MORINA: Don’t do it.
WOODS: Oh, wow.
MORINA: Do not do it. I just wish I would have done more research, more research, more research.
WONG: Dominique says this is where public policy should step up. The government should be doing more of the research on behalf of students. It should be vetting for-profit colleges more strongly and enforcing the law so that anyone enrolling at a college knows it will meet basic standards.
WOODS: And in terms of the wider student debt problem, Dominique wants more effort put into designing policies that work for everyone.
BAKER: You sort of realize how much policy is shaped for a specific type of student. And if you deviate from being that typical type of student in any way, it becomes really challenging.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
WOODS: This show was produced by Jamila Huxtable with engineering from Debbie Daughtry. It was fact-checked by Kathryn Yang. Viet Le is our senior producer, and he also edited this episode. Kate Concannon edits the show. And THE INDICATOR is a production of NPR.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.