Student loans do not equal 40 acres and a mule : a case study of African Americans and the student loan crisis.


One-third of student loan debt is delinquent or in default, creating a crisis in the United States economy and the lives of the students (Friedman, 2020 U.S. Department of Education, 2019). A more complex story is that of the African American student with default rates five times more than their majority counterparts (Mishory et al., 2019; Ratcliffe & McKernan, 2012). The default rates represent failed public policies causing financial inequality between African Americans and White Americans (Oliver & Shapiro, 1997). The purpose of this study was to understand the African American students’ experience when deciding how to finance higher education after federal and state grants.

This single case study with embedded units captured the experiences of African American students at Historical Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU) as they make decisions on how to finance their education. Through surveys, interviews, and focus groups, the voice of students and presidents of the colleges described the unique experiences of the students. Three themes emerged from the study. One, HBCU students rely on informal and often flawed education systems of friends and family instead of formal programs. Second, in terms of financial literacy, students do not comprehend the complex language of the formal financial advice offered, the financial documents, or the funding process. Third, the theme of access to resources is that African American students have fewer resources than their White American peers resulting in the diversion of borrowed funds to cover expenses not currently included in the Title IV definition of the cost of college.

These findings engender considerations for universities responsible for advising and supporting students on the complexity of financing options for higher education. In addition, this research informs policy decisions in the U.S. House of Representatives House Education and Labor Committee, U.S. Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions, U.S. Department of Education, and Secretaries of Education at state levels inequities in the current system.