Dr. Richelle Brooks has between $230,000 and $250,000 in student loan debt. She says she’s been in higher education since graduating high school.
“[I have] an associate's in nursing, bachelor's degree in behavioral science, master's degree in sociology, master's degree in teaching curriculum and instruction, a teaching credential in science, a teaching credential in math, a doctorate in education and an administrative credential," Brooks said. "And the last program that I was enrolled in was a certificate for IT.”
She says she feels forced to stay in school because it's the only way to delay her student loan payments.
“As soon as I get that bill saying, 'Hey, your student loans would be due in six months,' I go find another place to go to school in another degree to attain," Brooks said. "I can't pay it.”
Brooks was raised by a single mother in a poor community, and she says she thought taking out lots of loans was normal because that’s how she and her mother survived.
“There was no way out other than borrowing money from where I was in that moment," Brooks said. "You know, I didn't have any guidance and I think that's common with first-generation college students. There's really no blueprint. There's not a lot of people that know what you're doing.”
Despite the debt, she loves and values her education.
“We have knowledge and access to knowledge," Brooks said. "We're bettering ourselves which is good for society.”
Now she’s a single mother and a principal. She says she's not making enough money to pay off her growing debt, but her situation isn’t rare.
Dr. Jalil Mustafa Bishop is an associate professor of education at Villanova University.
“I study issues of racial justice and movement building in higher education with a particular focus on the student debt crisis,” Bishop said.
Bishop recently put together a report that focuses on the experiences of Black students when it comes to their student loan debt.
“Sixty-six percent of those who respond to our survey regretted their student loans, almost half reported not experiencing a positive return," Bishop said. "In an interview, they explained that student debt often was not a choice. They felt like they made something that they were required to do if they wanted to experience mobility if they wanted to access higher education and have an opportunity at some of the promises that we say will come with borrowing student loans and earn your credentials.”
Bishop points to income-based repayment plans as part of the problem.
“Black borrowers were having their payments adjusted so that they were 'affordable', but their payments weren't enough to actually cover both interest and principal, so they were making payments for 10 or 20 years, but still seeing their student debt balance grow each year while struggling to manage their payments,” Bishop said.
Black borrowers refer to these payment plans as a lifetime debt sentence.
“When we look at black students 20 years out, they still owe about 95 percent of the student debt balance," Bishop said. "When we look at white students 20 years out, they have actually paid down 93 percent of their student debt.”
Dr. Armen Henderson works with Jalil as part of the Debt Collective, a membership-based union that aims to transform the individual financial struggle.
“It was just the narrative is that if you want to pull yourself up by your bootstraps, you have to go to school and that the jobs will be there, the recession will be over, etc.," Henderson said. "And it wasn't, it wasn't like that.”
Henderson says Black communities have to work even harder to become successful.
“I worked while I was in medical school," Henderson said. "I was on food stamps when I was in medical school and, you know, my dad became homeless and my brother became homeless when I was in medical school.”
He is the first in his family to become a physician, but his debt is $600,000. He says he took out $300,000 and with compound interest it’s now double.
He says he’s unable to make significant payments on that debt because he needs to support his family.
“Now, when I when I go to apply for a loan for a house and things of that nature or to start a business and things, you know, people are looking at this heavy amount of debt that I have over my shoulders,” Henderson said.
Henderson and Brooks are both calling for debt cancellation to repair what they see as a racial injustice. However, neither of them regrets their degrees.
“There is a need, definitely, for Black academics," Henderson said. "It is definitely needed. I just think it costs too much.”