Student debt is fueling the Black-white wealth gap — and pursuing a college degree has become ‘racialized,’ this professor says

Market Watch

By Jillian Berman

September 14, 2020

Black young adults hold 10.4% less wealth on average than their white counterparts due to student debt, according to Fenaba Addo’s research

Over the past several years, policymakers and pundits have gained a greater understanding of the disproportionate impact the nation’s debt-based college finance system has on Black families and borrowers.

That’s thanks in part to Fenaba Addo, an associate professor of consumer science at the University of Wisconsin-Madison who studies debt and its role in racial wealth inequality. Addo’s research has shown, among other things, that the gap in student debt held by Black and white borrowers grows by 6.8% each year. As a result, Black young adults hold 10.4% less wealth on average than their white counterparts due to student debt.

ddo’s work has also highlighted dramatic disparities in millennials’ net wealth overall: White, older millennials with a bachelor’s degree or more have a median net wealth of $60,030. Their Black counterparts have a median net wealth of $6,422.

These disparities are the result of centuries of discrimination that have blocked Black families’ access to the resources white families have typically used to build their wealth. Without resources like home equity and money or property inherited from previous generations, Black families have less to draw from to pay for college and pay off student loans.

MarketWatch spoke with Addo for The Value Gap about this and some of her other work analyzing the role that debt plays both in society broadly and in interpersonal relationships. The conversation has been edited and condensed.

MarketWatch: Can you walk me through some of your findings on student debt, and in particular how you feel those findings have changed the conversation or changed the way people understand this issue?

Addo: Where do I start? I guess the work that’s gotten the most attention has been our work on racial disparities in student-loan debt and its relationship to wealth inequality. We find, as one might expect, that in aggregate, parental wealth is negatively associated with student debt accumulation among their children. However, when we disaggregate this by race, the relationship held among whites, but does not hold among Blacks — and, in fact, at the higher end of the wealth distribution, Black children were taking on more amounts of debt.