CHICAGO | In communities of color, it has been common knowledge that African-American and Hispanic students do not fare well when burdened with student debt.
We tend to think of this as affecting mostly low-income students. Yet, according to Marshall Steinbaum and Kavya Vaghul, researchers at the Washington Center for Equitable Growth, it turns out that among minority student borrowers, those most adversely affected are actually in the middle class.
For instance, among ZIP codes with a median income of about $20,000, those with a large share of Latinos have approximately the same rates of delinquency as those without. But among ZIP codes with a median income of around $60,000, those with a large Latino share have much higher rates of loan delinquency than those without. The same pattern stays true for African-American communities and is even amplified a bit.
This feels counterintuitive and yet, it makes a lot of sense. The authors of the study cite a variety of factors to account for this phenomenon -- for example, very low-income Hispanics and African-Americans are not likely to even attend college whereas middle-income ones are likelier to attend, but not complete, an undergraduate degree.
And then there is the well-documented reality of a job market with barriers for even those minority students who successfully complete college. They tend to face higher unemployment rates and lower earnings than their white counterparts -- disadvantages that are not attributable to particular college majors, occupations or the type of higher-education institution of the recent graduate.
Steinbaum and Vaghul lean heavily on the bugbear of "structural racism" in both the U.S. higher-ed system and in the job market, and there's no denying this plays some part.
But often overlooked is the reality that there aren't many non-college pathways for staying in the middle class for anyone these days and -- if we're to generalize the racial gap in hiring to all workers, not just white-collar ones -- even fewer for Hispanics and African-Americans.
This is why parents, families and teachers tell kids, from kindergarten on, that they have to go to college because there's no other choice. As my older son puts it, "They make it seem like if you don't go to college, you are going to die young, poor and alone."
What are students who are interested in meaningful work, but not in the ridiculously expensive process of going to college for four to six years, supposed to do but slog through the application process, take out the loans, and simply hope they finish?
If you look at the numbers, Hispanic and African-American student-loan delinquency is concentrated among those who attended for-profit or other nontraditional institutions, which usually cost more than traditional colleges. And a for-profit student is likely to be the first in his or her family to attend college, likelier to be older (mid-20s) than the average college freshman and the least likely to be a dependent.
This is likely someone who didn't initially go to college, was stymied in the workplace without the all-important degree, and decided to try a program that promised to cut out all but the career-training aspects of a higher-ed credential. These students are likelier to borrow in larger amounts and default on their loans, in part either from not finishing or from finding their new credential is all but useless in the job market.
The parents, families and teachers who preach college aren't trying to steer kids in the wrong direction -- anyone who has been paying attention for the last 20 years knows that this country no longer has stable, middle-class jobs for people without college degrees. And this is a shame for a whole contingent of smart and otherwise potentially great workers who just don't want to gamble their futures on more schooling.
The student-loan debt crisis will, in large part, be fixed once the U.S. economy can create decent-paying jobs for people who don't desire to attend college. But first our leaders have to stop and recognize that not everyone wants to go to college. And that has to be OK.
For this country to thrive, there have to be jobs for achieving entry into the middle class -- or staying in it -- that are not strictly dependent on an undertaking that costs a bare minimum of $9,000 per year at a state college.