By Rep. Karen Bass (D-CA)
President Obama gave a stirring commencement address Sunday at a pillar of Black educational excellence.
The president extolled the rich Morehouse legacy, which counts civil rights icon Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. as an alumnus. He implored his audience of young achievers to step bravely into the challenges ahead and through service continue the proud Morehouse heritage.
Sadly, as the president arrives back in Washington, Congress is preparing this week to vote on a Republican student loan proposal that would make attending college much more expensive. The proposal would exacerbate the student debt crisis in America, making it much more difficult for future generations of African-Americans to enter the middle class.
For decades, African-American youth have been told that hard work and a good education is the great equalizer for them to accomplish their dreams regardless of race.
This reality is slowly slipping away as the cost to attend college continues to rise and many students are forced to take out costly loans to complete their educations.
Student loan debt has now surpassed $1 trillion and is second only to mortgage debt in America. Tuition has increased steadily as public universities are faced with relentless state budget cuts, ultimately passing the burden down to students.
This hits African-Americans hardest — as they often rely on grants, scholarships and other forms of debt-free aid to make college more affordable. With these resources drying up, African-American students have had to turn toward taking on costly student loans.
The Project on Student Debt reports that in 2010, seniors leaving college in debt were disproportionately African-American — with 80 percent of Blacks graduating with debt compared to 64 percent of whites.
Graduating with exorbitant amounts of debt is bad enough, but imagine leaving college with the debt and no degree because college got too expensive before you could complete your education. This is another sad reality for many African-American youth.
Adding insult to injury are the aggressive tactics collectors use to collect on these debts once borrowers have fallen behind or struggle to make on-time payments.
When we consider all of the socio-economic issues African-Americans must overcome to enter the middle class, student loan debt is yet another barrier to permanently erasing economic inequality.
Excessive student loan debt hurts the ability of African-Americans to purchase homes, start businesses, increase their savings and reinvest in the community.
Locking African-Americans out of higher education means they are nearly twice as likely to not find work because they lack a college education. This only exasperates the alreadydisproportionate jobless rates hitting Black communities.
A clear path to the middle class is being evaporated unless we do more to address the student loan debt crisis in America and the broader issue of making college more affordable and accessible to communities of color.
Instead of getting serious about this issue, my Republican colleagues are offering a sad “bait and switch” that amounts to a $4 billion tax on students, parents and grandparents. Their proposal shamelessly provides low interest rates to borrowers today that will no doubt be much higher when billing statements begin to hit mailboxes once borrowers have graduated.
In short, their plan proposes making borrowers pay thousands more in interest on student loans while the federal government continues to make billions of dollars in profits off the backs of borrowers, in the process making it much more difficult for future generations to earn their way into the middle class.
If Washington can give big banks low interest rates, it’s fair to ask why not make the same investment in our youth who have worked hard, played by the rules and want to make a serious contribution to their country and communities.
By failing to act on student loan debt, we remove one of the best tools we have available to fight against systemic inequality and make sure ladders of opportunity continue to exist for African-Americans to enter into the middle class.
Rep. Karen Bass (D-California) represents California’s 37th Congressional District. She currently serves as whip of the Congressional Black Caucus for the 113th Congress and was the first African-American woman to serve as speaker of the California General Assembly.