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Borrowing Inequality: Race, Class and Student Loans

reviewed by Noel S. Anderson - 2004

coverTitle: Borrowing Inequality: Race, Class and Student Loans
Author(s): Derek V. Price
Publisher: ABLEX Publishing Company, Westport, CT
ISBN: 1588262162, Pages: 161, Year: 2004
Search for book at Amazon.com

The alarming rise in tuition at public and private colleges and universities around the country coupled with the precipitous decline in federal student aid is pushing higher education out of the reach of many students in the

United States . The middle class is feeling the pressure, with many families refinancing homes or maxing out credit cards to pay for four years of undergraduate education. Those disproportionately impacted by escalating college costs are students of color from low-income and poor families, for whom a college education may be the only viable avenue to increasing their life chances. A recent report states that less than half of Latino and African American students complete college within six years compared to 63% for whites, largely because of a lack of financial support from colleges and universities (The Education Trust, 2004).

As this new research on the “graduation gap” emerges, the federal Higher Education Act of 1965 (HEA), which was developed to provide aid to students regardless of their ability to pay, is up for reauthorization this fall. Vigorous debate rages in Congress over provisions such as whether students who attend cheaper colleges should continue receiving the maximum in Pell grants. Presently Pell grants cover only 40% of public college tuition, down from 80% since 1980. Another heated issue is whether the federal government should expand programs providing loans directly to students rather than through commercial banks. Conservatives in both the House and the Senate argue for continued subsidies to commercial lenders and the elimination of loan consolidation at fixed interest rates, a decision that will adversely affect students from middle and upper-income families who select this option most often. Centrist policy makers, on the other hand, argue for strengthening HEA and returning support to middle class families. Undoubtedly reauthorizing HEA will serve as a litmus test of the financial commitment of Congress to expanding higher educational opportunities for all students. But, fundamentally, at the core of the debates over rising college costs and financial aid is a prevailing and crucial question: what is truly the purpose and role of higher education in the

United States ?

Derek Price in Borrowing Inequality: Race, Class and Student Loans adds a needed and informed voice to the discourse on the purpose and role of higher education. Price argues that the federal government has moved away from the promise of HEA and the larger pursuit of educational equity. He states, emphatically, that the over-reliance on student loans to finance higher education is undermining equal opportunities. Price weaves a well-researched argument that the rising costs of higher education at the state level have gone hand-in-hand with a decrease in federal aid. “The two-decade trend in rising college prices as well as the increased reliance on student loans to finance higher education has altered the balance between the social and individual purposes of higher education,” (p. 7) he states. To Price, higher education fosters an instrumental self-interest by facilitating individual mobility and a communicative social interest by contributing to the common good. Yet, he argues, the financial burden levied on low-income families, and disproportionately on families of color, by federal and state governments “contributes to the reproduction of social inequality” (p. 28).

Price’s strongest use of data illustrates the barriers to graduate and career options for low-income and poor students of color who attend less-expensive colleges and are saddled with loan debt upon leaving college. Given that students of color and students from low-income and poor families tend to enter professional fields geared toward public service in greater numbers than other groups, Price maintains that the loan debt burden not only dissuades students of color from entering public service careers, but it also hinders their ability to pursue higher degrees. This unnecessary dilemma, as Price sees it, hinders students’ ability to expand their skills and their competitiveness in the job market, and it undermines the role and purpose of higher education for the public good.

Price relies heavily on longitudinal data from the

National Center for Education Statistics to highlight the correlation of job opportunities and debt levels of students across race and class in the United States . This strengthens his thesis that current trends in higher education perpetuate social reproduction. Price’s chapter on “Educational Debt and Economic Class Reproduction,” for instance, is the most comprehensive, drawing on previous studies looking at class mobility, race, and education. It is evident from the data that whites tend to have a better return on their education than minorities (Fine, 1991). The unnecessary debt burden coupled with the systemic inequalities in education and the market place contribute to this problem.

Price’s analysis of social reproduction could have been developed further, however. There has been a large public policy shift in thinking about entitlements for poor and low-income families. These entitlements were created as part of HEA under the Great Society initiatives of the Kennedy and Johnson administrations. However, since the Nixon administration there has been an overall move in

America from entitlements for the poor to an age of deservedness, when poor and low-income people have to prove their commitment to advancing themselves. As Price states, the labor market inequalities and indebtedness create a “double bind” oppression for poor and working class African American and Latino students. Yet, the larger assault on the poor and working class in America is at epidemic levels, and it impacts public services across the board. The challenge in higher education is one aspect of this politically conservative trend sweeping this country.

The reforms to federal aid policies that Price proposes are feasible and merit serious consideration. Some steps are to classify Pell Grants as an entitlement, remodel federal guaranteed student loans with larger government subsidies, and expand loan forgiveness programs for those entering public service. Further, Price maintains that colleges and universities need to increase need-based financial aid. These are crucial actions for ensuring better access and career choices for students in need.

Harvard University ’s recent elimination of the parent contribution for families making $40,000 or less can be used as a clarion call for a recommitment of private colleges to higher education for the public good.

Borrowing Inequality is a readable, thoughtful, and well-argued text, contributing much needed analysis to the equity debate. It is a must read in policy circles, in higher education leadership courses, and for those interested in expanding opportunities for poor and working class students of color. Borrowing Inequality provides a sobering look at the current racial and economic barriers to a college degree for many students of color in the

U.S. while still holding out for the greater promise of higher education.


Fine, M. (1991). Framing dropouts: Notes on the politics of an urban high school.

Albany, NY: SUNY Press.

The Education Trust. (2004). A matter of degrees: Improving graduation rates in four-year colleges and universities. Retrieved June 1, 2004 from www.edtrust.org.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 106 Number 12, 2004, p. 2294-2297
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 11330, Date Accessed: 10/21/2021 2:44:53 PM

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About the Author
  • Noel Anderson
    Brooklyn College
    E-mail Author
    NOEL S. ANDERSON is Assistant Professor of Education Policy in the Department of Political Science at Brooklyn College, The City University of New York. His most recent publication is "'Hoping and Coping:' A Case Study African American and Latino Males in an Urban Upward Bound College Preparation Program" (co-authored with Dr. Colleen Larson, New York University) submitted to Educational Administration Quarterly for Spring 2005 publication. Currently, he is working on a project that examines the influence of American educational policy on the design of South African Bantu Education under Apartheid during the 1940s and 1950s.
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