The Biden administration is finalizing a plan for student loan reform in the upcoming weeks, a program many have pointed to as a crucial first step toward racial equity. Black students take out much more in student loans due to a lack of intergenerational wealth in the Black community, making student loan forgiveness a racial justice issue.
It's one that we, two proud Black Yale School of Medicine faculty specializing in racial equity, fully support. So we were shocked to read reports that the administration is considering income caps for eligibility for student loan forgiveness that would exclude higher-earning Americans. Per the Washington Post, the Biden administration also plans to exclude those whose loans had gone toward professional degrees in law and medicine.
If student loan reform is supposed to uplift Black Americans out of poverty and disparate educational opportunities, why, then, is it putting a lid on the amount we can achieve before the program leaves Black professionals behind? Income-based and occupation-limited reform would indeed offer student debt reprieve to many Black Americans, but only to the extent that structural racism traps us amongst the bottom tiers of American education and wealth.
True racial equity in education debt reform must create long-term possibilities that allow Black professionals at the highest tiers of educational achievement—including law and medicine—to responsibly repay our debt while building the generational wealth that has been denied to us for over 400 years.
White colonial settlers and their offspring forced enslaved Africans to unfairly give them a 400-year head start building wealth in American. Even today, systemic racism intentionally limits the education and wealth accumulation of Black Americans. What that means is that compared to their white peers, Black professionals must borrow more money to achieve equivalent degrees, just for structural racism to sustain nonequivalent pay at every education level. Student loans perpetuate the wealth gap between Black and white professionals no matter our income or level of education.
To be clear, we wholly agree that cancellation is the fastest route to offer student loan relief to lower income Americans with the most immediate need. After aiding Black American borrowers unable to afford necessities like rent and groceries, we must recognize how disproportionately high student loan balances limit more than our ability to afford basic resources; loan debt prevents Black professionals from climbing the ranks of education and wealth, straining efforts to provide ourselves and our families the equivalent resources that our white counterparts provide to theirs.
Certainly, blanket debt cancellation across all incomes and professions is not the answer. For example, Black physicians must borrow the most medical school debt to achieve what little representation we have in medicine (Black women represent only 2 percent of all medical faculty). So while our better paid, better promoted, better represented, and less indebted white colleagues can afford elite private schools for their children and can make investments towards accumulating more wealth, hefty monthly loan payments further hinder Black physicians from providing our families equivalent resources.
Moreover, for the 50 percent of Black physicians graduating medical school with $200,000 debt and the 17 percent graduating with over $300,000 in debt, cancelling $10,000 or even $50,000 of our debt wouldn't even begin to close the wealth gap. And as many GOP opponents like to point out, higher earning Black professionals are perfectly capable of paying our own debt.
But racial equity in student loan reform cannot be defined as Black professionals affording basic resources in comparison to white colleagues across all socioeconomic levels. Racial equity of student loan reform must be defined as Black professionals affording equivalent resources in comparison to white colleagues across all socioeconomic levels. This requires repayment programs to intentionally create ways for Black professionals to responsibly pay our debt while catching up to white people's 400-year head start.
What might this look like?
Many income-based repayment plans require borrowers to repay 10 percent of their discretionary salary. A fair plan would propose Black Americans repay 5 percent of our salary to leave an additional 5 percent to build wealth. And if Black professionals repay 10 percent of our salary like privileged persons, the government could set aside half of our payment toward a federally funded retirement plan, a small business loan, or a federal equivalent of a 529 college savings plan for our own children (which would produce sustainably reduced dependence on student loans within one generation).
The federal government could also build upon its current version of the public service loan forgiveness program, which allows tax-free debt forgiveness after 10 years of on-time payments for borrowers employed in the public sector, by tailoring it specifically to Black Americans. And all Black Americans could be eligible for forgiveness no matter the sector we work in. Moreover, repayment terms could be shortened, perhaps eight years for people working in the private sector and five years for public service.
Black professionals must increase representation at the highest levels of educational attainment, like law and medicine, and to that end, federal scholarships could subsidize the tuition of Black lawyers and doctors even before loans accrue. Finally, federal programs could supplement the salary of Black lawyers and doctors.
The possibilities are endless. But first, lawmakers must decide if student loan reform is supposed to truly close the racist intergenerational wealth gaps between Black and white Americans across all socioeconomic levels. Or do lawmakers support student loan reform only if Black professionals are left behind?
Carmen Black, MD, is assistant professor of psychiatry at Yale University and a Public Voices Fellow of The OpEd Project. Jessica Isom, MD MPH, is a clinical instructor at Yale University and Owner of Vision for Equity LLC.
The views in this article are the writers' own.