As student loans mount for Black women, leaders are split on how to help

Khadirah Muhammad, a senior at Georgie State University poses for a portrait at the Student Center on Wednesday, Aug. 23, 2023. Muhammad has about $45,000 in student loan debt. (Natrice Miller/


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Khadirah Muhammad, a senior at Georgie State University poses for a portrait at the Student Center on Wednesday, Aug. 23, 2023. Muhammad has about $45,000 in student loan debt. (Natrice Miller/



When Ashley Young was a college counselor at an Atlanta charter school, spring was her least favorite time of year — not because students didn’t get into college, but because they couldn’t pay for it.

The question of paying off student loans is particularly acute for Black female borrowers, who have more debt than any other demographic group. They graduate owing an average of nearly $39,000, according to the nonprofit the Education Trust. Georgia has the third-highest amount of average debt for all borrowers, behind Washington, D.C., and Maryland, according to federal data.

Compounding the challenge of paying off debt, college-educated Black women are paid 10% less than college-educated white women, the Education Trust reports. Black borrowers have higher student loan default rates than white borrowers, some federal research shows.

“We are seeing the intersection of racism and sexism have a really profound effect on Black women,” Young, now an education analyst at the Georgia Budget and Policy Institute, said of the statistics.

Credit: Contributed

Credit: Contributed

In the wake of this summer’s U.S. Supreme Court decisions that blocked President Joe Biden’s debt forgiveness plan and restricted affirmative action college admissions programs, analysts and politicians in Georgia are debating the best strategies to support Black women seeking to enroll in and afford college. Some advocate implementing widespread need-based aid and adding an income cap to merit scholarships to address the inequities. Others disagree with that approach.

The percentage of Black women between the ages of 18 and 24 enrolled in college has increased in recent decades, federal data shows, from 35% in 2000 to 41% in 2018. Experts in organizations that work to increase educational opportunities for Black students say the court decisions will not deter them from pursuing higher education.

“(Black women) are not taking no for an answer and continue to achieve despite systemic barriers,” said Nadrea Njoku, a research director at the United Negro College Fund. “Their resilience to keep moving forward and gain more education so that they cannot be denied in their careers comes at a cost, and it tends to be a very high cost.”

Khadirah Muhammad, a 22-year-old senior at Georgia State University studying political science, is among the women hoping to pursue future degrees despite already having approximately $45,000 of student debt. Her family has a history with student debt, with her mother owing more than $100,000 in loans. She said she “dreads” thinking about her debt and is looking for programs that will pay her to get a master’s degree to avoid borrowing more money.

“We as Black women push to be as educated as possible, continue with school, continue with getting high in the workplace and breaking glass ceilings,” Muhammad said. “But it’s also expensive for us to be so heavily driven that whenever we stop, it’s looked at as though we’re lazy or we’re abandoning our hope.”

Some Georgia colleges noted their efforts to provide need-based aid to students when asked what’s being done to enroll Black women. A University of Georgia spokesperson said in an email that need-based scholarships were among the “top priorities of the university’s recent fundraising campaign.” Georgia State University, which has more Black students than any school in the state, has several grant and work-study programs for students.

Georgia’s two merit scholarships, HOPE and Zell Miller, are open to all students in the state. High schoolers must achieve a 3.0 or 3.7 grade-point average to attain HOPE or Zell respectively. This academic year, both scholarships fund 100% of tuition at Georgia public colleges.

Young said the scholarships contribute to inequity since they don’t have an income cap. Wealthier students, she said, can afford support like tutoring to increase their GPA.

“(HOPE) has absolutely driven disparities between those who are affluent and those who are not, and it has driven disparities between those who are white and students who are not,” said Young.

State Sens. Tonya Anderson, D-Lithonia, and Emanuel Jones, D-Decatur, support adding an income cap to HOPE and Zell. Jones suggested implementing a sliding scale based on family income: HOPE could be funded at 50% for the top 5% of earners, at 75% for the top 6%-20%, and at 100% for everyone else. If income caps are adopted, Jones supports a “hardship exemption” that lowers the GPA required to achieve HOPE to 2.75 for students dealing with an extenuating circumstance that hindered their education.

Some lawmakers aren’t fans of an income cap.

Democratic state Sen. Harold Jones II, D-Augusta, said doing so would introduce “political issues” as it could appear to penalize high achievers.

Lt. Gov. Burt Jones, a Republican, expressed support for the current, uncapped version of HOPE and Zell scholarships in an email to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

State Rep. Mesha Mainor, who switched to the Republican Party in July, agrees that the scholarships should remain uncapped. Mainor, of Atlanta, said that they help keep students in the state, which aids Georgia in the labor market.

“If we continue to give people HOPE and Zell based on merit without income limits, technically that is helping us with our labor force,” she said.

Credit: Jason Getz /

Credit: Jason Getz /

As a school counselor at Booker T. Washington, a predominantly Black high school in Atlanta, Donald Prater supports keeping the scholarships uncapped because they help students in middle income groups. He said that his Black female students typically require fewer reminders to apply to scholarships than their male counterparts.

Muhammad did not receive the HOPE scholarship until her sophomore year of college, so she had to take out hefty loans in her first year to cover tuition. Even with HOPE, she said she continues to borrow money to cover her room and board.

Though she is grateful to attend Georgia State University, Muhammad said that doing so was largely a financial decision, as she was accepted to a number of historically Black colleges and universities that she would have rather attended. But with medical bills piling up for her family, they were entirely out of her price range.

“I just had to bite the bullet and go with the cheaper school,” she said of Georgia State, which costs about $10,000 in tuition and fees this academic year for in-state students.



The UNCF, which partners with 37 HBCUs, advocates doubling the Pell Grant. Through the grant, low-income undergraduate students can receive up to $7,395 from the federal government this academic year. Unlike loans, students do not need to pay back Pell Grants.

Nearly 70% of Black students are eligible for the grant, according to Michael Lomax, president of the UNCF. Lodriguez Murray, a senior official at UNCF, hopes that doubling the grant would deter individuals, especially Black women, from taking out loans.

Murray noted that Biden has also expressed support for doubling the maximum value of the Pell Grant. Congressional Republicans have been less vocal about the idea, focusing instead on income-driven repayment plans for student loan borrowers.

Some argue that Georgia has the funds to help borrowers. Young supports using profits from the Georgia Lottery to fund need-based aid. The Georgia Lottery has $1.1 billion in unrestricted reserves that is not subject to legal obligation or commitment.

Gov. Brian Kemp, however, told the AJC earlier this summer that he is committed to keeping significant sums in the reserves.

Credit: Natrice Miller /

Credit: Natrice Miller /

Despite the burden of loans, Anderson maintains that Black women must remain committed to higher education.

“We have to live in a place of hope,” she said. “I believe there is another way.”