The Price of Opportunity: Race, Student Loan Debt, and College Achievement



This paper examines racial differences in student loan debt and concurrently assesses the potential payoffs and countervailing risks inherent in reliance on loans in a cohort of black and white first-year college students. Using the 1996–2001 Beginning Postsecondary Student study we find that the use of loans results in greater enrollment persistence and higher odds of college completion, especially for black students. However, black students acquire larger amounts of student loan debt and face a higher risk of default than white students. This is in part due to associated racial differences in family socioeconomic status and type of institution attended. We suggest these findings illuminate the dual-sided nature of college loans that makes them an imperfect, but overall positive, tool for reducing educational inequality. On the one hand, student loans reduce educational inequality that otherwise results from disadvantaged students' struggles to pay for college and complete college in a timely fashion. At the same time, the degree to which loans reduce racial inequality is diminished by black students' higher loan amounts, the large number of black students who borrow but do not finish college, and the large racial difference in the odds of defaulting on a loan.