Morehouse Class of 2019 graduates react after hearing billionaire technology investor and philanthropist Robert F. Smith say he will provide grants to wipe out the student debt of their entire graduating class at Morehouse College commencement in Atlanta on May 19.
Photo: Steve Schaefer/Atlanta Journal-Constitution via AP
Photo: Steve Schaefer/Atlanta Journal-Constitution via AP

Opinion: Morehouse gifts don’t erase loan burdens and underemployment of blacks

Southern Methodist University law professor Lolita Buckner Inniss is happy for the Morehouse College students who will have their school debt retired, agreeing with the oft-repeated comment that these young men won the student loan lottery. 

However, in a guest column today, Inniss uses the opportunity to highlight the burden of higher education on black families who are not so lucky and struggle to get educations only to find they can’t get the same level of employment afforded to college graduates of other races.

Inniss is a professor of law and a Robert G. Storey Distinguished Faculty Fellow at SMU in Dallas. She specializes in critical race theory, legal history, and property law. 

Inniss concludes too many black families who are poor or come from modest means still face a lifelong struggle just to break even – and it takes more than just one or two generations to catch up.

By Lolita Buckner Inniss

The announcement that black billionaire Robert F. Smith intends to eliminate the student debt of the Morehouse College Class of 2019 left me amazed, happy for those students – but more than a little bit jealous.

“Gee,” I thought, “It sure would have been nice if someone had paid off undergraduate and graduate school debts my husband and I incurred.” It took us more than 15 years to pay off that borrowed money. And that doesn’t count the loans and overtime my working class, barely-high-school-educated parents undertook to help fund undergraduate school. (I was on my own for graduate school).

My husband’s single mother could not afford to contribute to his education. He had to shoulder both the “student contribution” and the “parent contribution” at Princeton where we were undergraduates. Just because your family seems to lack assets is no reason, apparently, why they shouldn’t pay something.

We went to school in the good (bad) old days in the 1980s before such elite undergraduate schools pledged that no student would have to borrow. So, we borrowed, and borrowed, and finally, when we got full-time jobs, we worked, and worked, and paid and paid and paid. 

It took us a bit longer to pay due to normal life occurrences, such as delays for childbirth. We had twins in our early 20s. Our twin sons are a delight. The twins were also, as an African saying goes, a hard happiness, given our relative poverty. We were also delayed by periods of my states of under and unemployment. I never considered that as a black woman I would be chronically less well-employed than classmates. Yes, for those of you who doubt it, this is a real thing. 

I am happy for these Morehouse students, pleased they have a way out of the student loan debt hole by winning this lottery. What I am unhappy about is that financing education in this country comes down to another kind of lottery: the birth lottery. If you are born to wealth and resources, good for you. If not, bad for you.

We learned this as we faced our sons’ higher education expenses. They excelled academically and gained admission to the same sort of elite college we attended. Our happiness was tempered by the huge college bills. Because my husband and I had good jobs (not as good as some), financial aid officials figured we were good for much of our sons’ tuitions. 

No one then, or now, takes into account that we came from working class and poor parents and we had only our own resources to rely on our entire lives. We spent our early adult years paying our own student loans, piecing together house down payments, and scrambling for childcare money. We finished our own student loans just in time to borrow money to send our twins to school.

The twins were so awesome we decided to have a third child. That child, an equally delightful girl, matched her brothers in academic excellence. And once again she was admitted to an elite school. And just like with the boys, colleges decided we could pay most of her tuition. Luckily for us, we only have a few more years left to pay for the boys – which will make it easier to pay the debt for our daughter’s education.

Some will say to all of this: “Don’t have children if you can’t afford to educate them”; “Send them to cheaper schools”; and even, “Not everybody has to go to college.” Exhorting people to bear the burden of their own choices is understandable, but misguided. This ignores the importance of family life, diminishes the role of race and gender in outcomes, and elides the nature and quality of college education across institutions. As to the latter point, nobody likes to say it, but all colleges are not created equal.

In-depth research and anecdotal evidence support the fact that members of racial minority groups – especially black people, and especially black women – often have credentials and experience surpassing white peers employed in the same jobs. Attending an elite college is often a route – not to amazing wealth – but to merely solidify middle-class jobs for blacks. Racism remains a barrier to black success.

What troubles me in the discussion of higher education affordability is that colleges spend a lot of time congratulating themselves on making college more affordable for poor and first-generation students. Lost in these discussions is the fact that people who work for a living, especially black people, even middle and upper middle-class black people, are not “rich” the same way other people with generations of family assets or access to opportunities are “rich.”

It is no wonder I am skeptical of the College Board’s new plan to instantiate “adversity scores” for students based on several factors but not including race or generational hardship. My children are not second-generation college attendees. They are more like generation 1.2 – still bearing the burden of ongoing racism, of their grandparents’ poverty and of their parents’ early hardships.

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About the Author

Maureen Downey
Maureen Downey
Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.