Mapping the Black and Latino Student Loan Debt Crisis

The rapper Dee-1’s newest music video celebrates finally getting Sallie Mae off his back. But it’s middle-class black and Latino families who are struggling the most to repay student loans.

Some musicians score a record deal and immediately buy a luxurious home, a fancy ride, or some other status-symbol indicator. When the New Orleans-based rapper Dee-1 signed with RCA in 2013, he decided to pay off his student loans. Indeed, in his new video “Sallie Mae Back,” Dee-1 boasts that instead of buying a Mercedes Maybach with his recording contract advance, he burned off his college note.  

The video was filmed in front of the football stadium at Louisiana State University, where Dee-1 graduated in 2008. The song speaks to the hardships he faced in trying to pay his loans back, especially in Louisiana’s low-wage economy:

Needed tuition, needed room and board
Had to pay for books, so I took out loans to feed the boy
Graduated wasn't making quite enough to pay ‘em back
Went in default, messed my credit up, check my Equifax
I ain't proud of that, I'm more proud in that I ain’t drown in that

“I love being debt-free, so I made this song as an anthem to celebrate and also to encourage others who are working towards being debt-free,” the rapper said in a press statement released to accompany the video.

No doubt, there’s a large potential audience out there who can relate. There are over 42 million adults in the U.S. who collectively owe over $1.3 trillion in college loans. Even Kanye West, that notorious “college dropout” who married into the karzillion-dollar Kardashian family, recently ranted about it on Twitter:

The Washington Center for Equitable Growth, which has been tracking student debt, released findings this week that student loan delinquency disproportionally affects African Americans and Latinos. Write Marshall Steinbaum and Kavya Vaghul, researchers at the Center:

Zip codes with higher shares of African Americans or Latinos show much higher delinquency. What’s more, our analysis finds that among minority student borrowers, those most adversely affected are the middle class—those who have taken out debt to go to college but who haven’t been able to find jobs or don’t have sufficient family wealth to pay it back.

This finding, that it’s middle-class black and Latino families who are struggling the most to repay student loans, was pretty much consistent across every major city the Center’s researchers studied. For some key examples, take a look at the student debt landscape maps for Washington, D.C. and Los Angeles, two cities with large black and Latino populations:

(Washington Center for Equitable Growth)

Similarly in New Orleans, Dee-1 would surely not be surprised to learn that the highest delinquency rates (the darker-pink shaded areas in the animation below) are found in the northeast part of the city and in the northwest suburbs around Kenner, home to large middle-class black and Latino populations.  

(Washington Center for Equitable Growth)

In other words, Dee-1’s success in paying off Sallie Mae actually makes him an outlier. Most indebted college graduates in the U.S. never see the kind of big one-time payday that comes with a record deal. They have to pay their student loans off the long, hard way, through monthly payments, or for those in default, through wage garnishments.

As the Brookings Institution has pointed out, the biggest obstacle to paying loans off is that we’re living in an age of low earnings, when even a graduate degree doesn’t guarantee a high wage anymore. Dee-1 deserves props for encouraging his fans to take care of their obligations, but the student debt crisis facing the nation indicates a structurally broken system, one that’s even more difficult for middle-class black and Latino college graduates to navigate. It’s deeper than Sallie Mae.   

On that note, let’s end with a few more thoughts from Dee-1 himself, via email:

"If I had billions of dollars, I would pay off people's loans for them, gladly. I feel their pain, because I've been in that struggle. I think student loan debt in this country is ridiculous and I hate that we have to pay back our debts when we aren't even guaranteed jobs. I always viewed the educational system as a hustle. Everybody is hustling. So we must keep our hustle mentality about us even when we get degrees behind our name. Hopefully policies can change and make education more affordable in the U.S. "

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