By Grace Vitaglione

August 13, 2023

Eleanor Tyson, 22, is from Winston-Salem and is a public policy master’s student at UNC Chapel Hill. She’ll be taking out a loan to go to school, adding to her current student debt. As a freshman, Tyson said she didn’t know much about student loans or high interest rates. Now she’s worried about how all this debt will affect her future and that of her family.

“This is going to impact me for a long time,” Tyson said.

To pay for graduate school, Tyson said she weighed private versus public loans and worried over the best option.

“I did so much research, and it was so overwhelming. I was like: ‘I just want to cry, but I know I have to get it done,’” she said.

Thinking about her debt and how it limits her choices is stressful. To make things even more stressful, Tyson has to start repaying some of her loans in October, when the pause on student loan payments ends.

She’s not alone; many North Carolinians are worried about making payments in the fall. North Carolina is 10th in the nation for the highest student loan debt per capita. That burden is even heavier for Black women, who have the highest average total of undergraduate and graduate student loan debt, according to a report by Manpower Development Corp., or MDC, a North Carolina-based nonprofit that supports capacity building and economic development in the South.

Fenaba Addo, a public policy professor at UNC Chapel Hill, said barriers to education for Black students today partly stem from historical inequalities such as racial violence and the destruction of Black wealth.

Addo found in her research that racial inequalities in student debt play a role in the Black-white wealth gap in early adulthood. She said one factor is a lack of generational wealth in many Black families.

Members of the Black middle class tend to be less wealthy than members of the white middle class, according to Addo’s research. The study stated: “More than 25% of white families have a net worth of at least $1 million or more; only 4% of Black families meet that standard.” Assuming households with a net worth between $100,000 and $500,000 are viewed as “solidly” middle class, the study stated that in 2016, out of all the households that met those criteria, 73% were white, and 10% were Black.

History also plays an important role in understanding generational wealth gaps between Black people and white people. As Addo explained, events in North Carolina’s history stripped wealth away from Black people, such as the 1898 massacre in Wilmington, where white supremacists killed what could be tens to hundreds of Black people.

“We’ve had a history of race riots here, with the massacre in Wilmington, all these things that have been shown to either stolen wealth or taken wealth away,” she said. “Even downtown Durham, which used to have its own Black Wall Street, and it’s not really there anymore. So, these ways in which it’s been very difficult over time to maintain a Black middle class is something North Carolina’s not immune to.”

Racial violence that made it hard for Black families to acquire wealth and keep it creates the lack of parental wealth for Black students today, Addo said.