Negative Dowry: Why Women of Color Owe More Student Debt
By Elizabeth Tandy Shermer | February 22, 2023
At his announcement of a plan to forgive some student debt, President Biden remarked “An entire generation is now saddled with unsustainable debt in exchange for an attempt at a college degree.” He added that the skyrocketing cost of higher education “is especially heavy on Black and Hispanic borrowers, who on average have less family wealth to pay for it.”
Families of color are disproportionately struggling to afford college, which activists and progressive Democrats have stressed in their efforts to get Biden to cancel student debt. But few have joined Massachusetts Representative Ayanna Pressley in highlighting that women, especially those of color, owe more and have a harder time paying debts off. This is because women, especially women of color, continue to earn less than their white, male peers. Women also remain more likely to have to leave the labor force to provide unpaid care.
The racial and gender disparities in our current student loan crisis are the consequences of laws and policies that have kept higher education separate and unequal.
Policies such as the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the 1965 Higher Education Act (HEA), and the addition of Title IX to HEA in 1972 officially prohibited racial and gender discrimination in higher education. However, these policies also formalized a tuition-revenue and student-loan model that leaves many women to pay more in student loan debt and interest.
Higher Education for White Men
Women and people of color have never had equal chances to attend college. Indeed, federal higher education policies have often perpetuated colonial violence and racial inequality.
Federal efforts to expand access to higher education in the mid-20th century failed to attack the racial, gender, and economic inequalities built into higher education. For instance, the GI Bill privileged white men. The nursing corps and other parts of the armed forces in which women served were initially excluded. Women were later slow to apply due to caregiving responsibilities. This program also did nothing to stop discriminatory admissions practices.
Student Loans Compound Inequality
The cost of higher education has often been a deterrent for women and people of color. The Founders left education, at all levels, to state and local governments as well as private benefactors. As such, fiscal crises and closures have been a part of American higher education’s history. The uncertain financing of higher education left most postsecondary schools at least somewhat dependent on tuition revenue.
But federal student loan programs compounded intertwined racial and gender inequalities. In 1958, the National Defense Education Act offered campuses money to set up loan funds for students to pursue degrees in science, math, and other fields related to defense. While often hailed as a success, the NDEA replicated racial and gender inequalities. Most institutional funding went to large universities that remained the purview of white men. At the time, white men were far more likely to major in science, math, and engineering. Campuses also decided who received that limited tuition assistance, which reporters soon discovered tended to go to middle-income, white families.
The 1965 HEA also compounded racial inequality by institutionalizing the student loan model. President Johnson wanted to dramatically expand opportunities to attend college. The hope was that college degrees would eventually erase historic economic and social inequities. Policymakers nonetheless recognized that expanding Black American’s access to formerly racially segregated colleges would take time, so they included additional support for “developing institutions,” a euphemism for historically Black colleges and universities (HBCU). Federal officials had no interest in supporting colleges enough to free them from their reliance on tuition. Lawmakers instead offered more tuition assistance. That help included small grants, work-study options, NDEA loans, and new Guaranteed Student Loans, modeled on the 1930s federal mortgage program.
Federal student and housing loans exacerbated racial inequities in similar ways. Both promised lenders repayment, not that Americans would get loans for college classes or homes.
Neither HEA nor the 1934 Federal Housing Act assured that bankers or financial-aid officers would treat Americans equally. Aspiring African American homeowners, for example, had trouble buying homes in white neighborhoods or securing loans. Campus officials likewise decided which applicants they would admit and who would be offered tuition assistance. Investigators eventually discovered that student lenders offered Black families more onerous terms. Both federal mortgages and student loans also required borrowers to make monthly repayments but did not include protections in case someone lost their job or were unable to work.
Negative Dowry: Women and Student Debt
Repayment rules made student debt especially burdensome for women. Financial-aid officers and lawmakers had raised concerns about lending to women since the 1950s. Some feared a “negative dowry,” meaning that women would leave school with debt that their husbands would have to pay as they tended to homes and children. Concerns about the “negative dowry” were voiced in debates about adding sex discrimination provisions to the HEA. It did not seem to occur to most lawmakers (there were no women Senators then) that ensuring equal pay or compensation for caregiving could improve women’s access to higher education.
Neither the NDEA or HEA could erase racial and gender pay gaps that have persisted despite the 1963 Equal Pay Act, 1964 Civil Rights Act, 2009 Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, and other federal laws.
These policies also do nothing to minimize the burdens of unpaid care work faced by women. Women are not paid equally after graduation and struggle to pay their loans back as quickly as their male classmates. Student-loan borrowers can now apply for forbearance, but interest still accrues on those loans, an important factor that leaves women “Deeper in Debt.”
Student debt is not something to be forgiven, as borrowers did nothing wrong.
Women will still benefit if the Supreme Court does not stop Biden’s partial forgiveness plan. More could be done to ameliorate the gender and racial inequalities in the student loan crisis. If we are serious about making education genuinely accessible to historically marginalized groups, policymakers need to:
- Pass legislation to curb student loan interest accrual and capitalization. The Biden Administration needs to enforce new federal rules that would stop interest from accruing when payments do not cover the interest accrued. This would help women borrowers who often need to work part time due to caregiving responsibilities.
- Congress should reconsider Biden’s Build Back Better proposals for tuition-free community college and more direct support for HBCUs, Hispanic Serving Institutions, and Minority Serving Institutions. Both had the potential to keep tuition down at campuses that educate students who are more likely to be unable to pay for college out-of-pocket.
- Create a national plan to boost funding for local and state tuition and debt-free, four-year options. College Promise programs can be further regulated and subsidized to ensure that scholarship aid is reaching those who need the most help – low-income and BIPOC students.
- As recommended by organizations like the Debt Collective, cancel student loan debt
These steps would help rectify the inequality woven into federal programs that require women and low-income Americans to borrow and pay more for the same education. Policymakers need to start making higher education a public good, not a private luxury for those who can afford it.
Elizabeth Tandy Shermer is Associate Professor of History at Loyola University
Photo credit: “Fix the Student Debt Problem” by Overpass Light Brigade is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0.