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HBCU Survive and Thrive

‘Young, Gifted, & Broke’ gives expert advice on student loan debt crisis

BET special with Angela Rye and congresswoman Ilhan Omar delivers a big payoff

The student loan debt crisis disproportionately affects minorities, and thanks to a recent BET special, students were able to discuss what it means to be Young, Gifted, & Broke.

On the special, hosted by political strategist Angela Rye, black graduates from historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) and predominantly white institutions (PWIs) told stories of how their families are affected by educational debt. Some students revealed the balances owed on their loans and sought solutions.

“It’s nice that people are talking about the situation, because it disproportionately impacts black students, including black students at HBCUs, where we are educated most in this country,” said author Michael Arceneaux, who participated in the BET special. Arceneaux’s soon to be released book, I Don’t Want to Die Poor, explores the challenge of balancing financial security with his need to follow his dreams.

A national discussion about student loan debt must include its impact on social mobility, he said, as well as on the financial and emotional security of students.

Rye said it was important that the discussion took place on BET.

“You think about the role BET played for so many of us, from Video Soul to 106 & Park and all the ways that it entertains us,” Rye said. “Therefore, for it to be a place where we can also find substantive programming that talks about our challenges and help us reach the solution is exactly why I wanted to be a part of it.”

The show also featured U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, Howard University president Wayne A.I. Frederick and Jessica Brown, founder of collegegurl.com.

“I think we should have more frank conversations about basically what it requires to have social mobility in this country,” Arceneaux said. “Frank conversations about college, the access, the type of debt and the people being targeted by it.”

“I could drop dead right now and my mom would still be on the hook for that debt. The debt impacted how I date or don’t date, how I feel about my body, and carrying that with you takes a toll.” – Author Michael Arceneaux

He also spoke of the guilt he carried because his mother co-signed on his student loans.

“I could drop dead right now and my mom would still be on the hook for that debt. We need to have more conversations about these things,” Arceneaux said. “The debt impacted how I date or don’t date, how I feel about my body, and carrying that with you takes a toll. I’ve had to think about that debt every day of my life but still find a way to survive and thrive and not allow it to drown me.”

Tylik McMillan, a 2019 graduate of North Carolina A&T State University, said his debt made him question whether to attend law school.

“I wanted to go to law school, and everyone knows law school is very expensive,” McMillan said. “So, in my head, I was like, Wow, do I want to be selfish and put myself in deeper student loans even though I know it’s going to be expensive? Or do I just stick with what I got and keep it moving?

“But I always had a dream of going to law school, so it’s like, do I put my dream aside or do I not care about how much it costs and pursue my dream?”

McMillan is still considering going to Howard Law. He recommends that conversations about loans start in high school.

“I never in my high school even talked about what it was to have a student loan and what it would be like to pay it back,” McMillan said.

Tatyana Green, a high school college adviser, agreed that debt discussions should begin early. Green was a first-generation college student who now works at Ben L. Smith High School in Greensboro, North Carolina. She helps the school’s predominantly black and brown student population to navigate financing college.

“I always tell my students to give themselves options and make sure that they’re choosing the best financial situation for them,” Green said. “Typically when students get accepted and they get their financial aid reward letters, they’ll bring them to me and we’ll sit down and compare what the schools are offering, what they have to take out in loans, what the loans mean, because a lot of times they don’t understand what the loans mean. I always push my students to apply for scholarships because you’d rather have free money than money you have to pay back.”

Besides meeting with students one-on-one, Green visits classrooms and gives presentations about college and Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) applications and why applying for scholarships is important.

“I think a lot of times, the students are not exposed to the financial aspect until their senior year, so they’re kind of caught off guard. A lot of the population of Smith, no one in their family has ever been to college, so they don’t really know what it’s like when we tell them, ‘Oh, yeah, it costs $20,000 to go to college.’ They don’t have the perception of what that figure actually looks like,” Green said.

Michelle Alston, a loan adviser at North Carolina A&T, said those conversations should continue after a student enrolls in college.

“Students think things are going to go away. A lot of students are afraid to ask questions. ‘No’ is a small word, but it scares people.” – Michelle Alston, loan adviser at North Carolina A&T

“We send out emails, flyers, put them on the monitors around campus. We have FAFSA days. We have open houses, Aggie Nights and different things so when students come to get assistance with their FAFSA, we can help them do their FAFSA,” said Alston. “We have labs around campus who come in on Saturdays sometimes, and whoever comes, we’ll help them fill out their FAFSA.”

Alston also helps students navigate which types of loans to pursue. For students from high-income families, she suggests that they borrow the money they need and know their lenders and their contact information. For students in lower-income brackets, she recommends they start saving money as soon as possible and only borrow what they must. Excessive loans, she warns, are harder to pay back.

“Students think things are going to go away. A lot of students are afraid to ask questions. ‘No’ is a small word, but it scares people,” Alston said.

Financial advising is not unique to Smith or North Carolina A&T. Many high schools and colleges around the country offer similar opportunities. Nevertheless, lots of college students still graduate with tremendous amounts of debt. The average student debt for graduates of four-year colleges is about $32,000. However, a recent study found that the average black college graduate has $7,400 more in student debt than a white counterpart.

“I don’t think just one financial literacy class will actually prepare people,” Arceneaux said as he discussed the effectiveness of financial classes. “That won’t address the fact that in this country, there are systemic barriers in place that prevent economic parity. There’s no financial literacy class that you can take that to prepare for the fact that as a black college graduate, no matter where you go — be it Ivy League, be it HBCU, be it PWI, be it private — you’re more than likely to make less money in many cases than white college graduates.”

“There’s structural discrimination,” said Julia Barnard, a student debt expert at the Center for Responsible Lending. “It’s a larger civil rights issue.”

But there are people trying to end the cycle.

In May, billionaire Robert Smith pledged to create a grant for Morehouse graduates in the Class of 2019 to pay off their student loans. He also will pay for Parent PLUS loans, which are federal loans that parents obtain to help fund their children’s higher education.

Smith’s gift totaled $34 million and will benefit more than 400 students, parents and guardians. The gift will be part of the Morehouse Student Success Program, a fundraising and research initiative.

“We will pay for [debt] by adding a small financial transaction to speculators on Wall Street. We believe we had the opportunity to bail out Wall Street, and now Wall Street gets the opportunity to bail out the American people.” – U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar

Another person aiming to make a difference is Omar.

On the special, Omar said she has been working on the student loan debt issue since 2018. Omar referred to herself as a member of the “debt generation” and calls for legislation that would cancel all student debt, public and private.

“We will pay for [debt] by adding a small financial transaction to speculators on Wall Street. We believe we had the opportunity to bail out Wall Street, and now Wall Street gets the opportunity to bail out the American people,” Omar said.

The hope of this discussion was to bring awareness and eventual change.

“To me, Young, Gifted, & Broke is not just a public service but an act of love,” Rye said. “I want students and my peers who are older than me to know what I didn’t know so they can do better.”

East is a sophomore multimedia journalism major from North Carolina (“the 336” to be specific) She is the creator and host of East&Market, a campus-based YouTube show, and also serves as a videographer for the Aggies football team.