What the latest conversation about student loan forgiveness says about Black talent

OPINION: More than student debt relief, creating quality employment opportunities for Black talent could effectively address the racial wealth gap.

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Editor’s note: The following article is an op-ed, and the views expressed are the author’s own. Read more opinions on theGrio.

It’s been said that when America gets a cold, Blacks in America get the flu. For many Black folks, this “flu” of economic challenges has persisted and even grown generationally, affecting everything from education to housing to health care in an ongoing cycle that keeps many from achieving the American Dream. Economists and others often refer to disparities in wealth in America as the racial wealth gap due to the 6 :1 gap in median net worth of a white family versus a Black family. 

One significant barrier to closing the racial wealth gap, especially among younger Black people, is student loans. Blacks are more likely to take out student loans than their white peers. Reports show that Black college graduates are entering the workforce with an average of $25,000 more in student debt than white college graduates while barely making enough to pay it off. This last point may be the point. 

The disparity in access to equitable, well-paying jobs and careers makes Black talent more vulnerable to defaulting on loans. Some students are paying back student loan debt while working jobs that pay barely above minimum wage. The assumption that everyone with student loan debt actually graduated college, or even that college graduates earned a degree to work in a field with top earning potential, is often an illusion. When it comes to student debt relief, the data suggest that access to well-paying jobs and careers for Black jobseekers is arguably more important than loan forgiveness, as we look for pathways to access better jobs, homes, credit—and better lives. 

An in-depth study titled Wealth of Two Nations: The U.S. Wealth Gap, 1860-2020 found that “the racial wealth gap is the largest of the economic disparities between Black and white Americans, with a white-to-Black per capita wealth ratio of 6 to 1.” True wealth in the U.S. is passed from one generation to the next; so, in turn, the majority of Americans have to earn money to support themselves via employment—making jobs, and specifically living-wage jobs—essential. 

We know that creating quality employment opportunities at scale for Black talent across the U.S. could effectively address this issue. Today, there are currently 11 million unfilled roles in the job market, yet the majority of the quality jobs are inaccessible to Black talent. Approximately 79 percent of all jobs across the country that pay $60,000 or more require a four-year degree or credential just to compete for an interview. And yet, less than 25 percent of Black people ages 25 and above possess that specific credential. Despite their skills, determination, grit and experience, Black talent is being kept on the career sidelines, and companies are missing out on their meaningful contributions and opportunities to advance them. 

After a Minneapolis police officer killed George Floyd in 2020, coupled with the myriad of inequities that the pandemic revealed, OneTen formed as an effort focused on hiring, upskilling and advancing Black talent without four-year degrees into family-sustaining jobs and careers. Our goal is to become a resource for connecting jobseekers with the necessary skills-based training to secure a living wage and to transform employers’ mindsets around whether certain jobs actually require a four-year degree. Our coalition of 70-plus companies is working with us to re-credential certain jobs based on skills, not a degree. 

Through our online Career Marketplace, the coalition is assisting the 76 percent of Black talent in the workforce who don’t currently hold four-year college degrees and who earn less than $50,000 per year (some of whom may have borrowed to attend college at one time, but were unable to graduate for various reasons), to secure jobs that will allow them to both earn enough income to pay back student loans while maintaining their household expenses. 

When it comes to Black talent’s outlook on jobs, OneTen recently surveyed hundreds of Black individuals, currently without four-year degrees, across the country to find out what they desire from employment. First on their list is a commitment to a skills-first approach to hiring for jobs with family-sustaining salaries. Like all Americans, Black talent has a desire to work a 40-hour work week and earn a living that allows them to save money, pay back student loans and buy a home. However, out of the hundreds of Black individuals without four-year degrees that were surveyed, more than 60 percent are either unemployed or working part-time. They are eager to step into more secure and fulfilling roles, representing an untapped talent pool.  

Our findings also indicate that salary and a living wage are not enough for Black talent. The survey showed that Black talent wants to know the companies they work with will support them and invest in their advancement. Nearly half (47 percent) of participants surveyed shared that they value strong mentorship, career development and promotion opportunities over higher wages when they seek out jobs. They are keen to deepen their knowledge and skills through education and technical certification. 

This is an opportunity whose fulfillment benefits all. Combining family-sustaining wages, comprehensive benefits, mentorship, paid training and other practices, we can close the opportunity and wealth gap for Black talent. We can leverage the genius that is being left on the sidelines. We can forge a better path toward economic advancement for our entire country! Let’s do it! 

Maurice A. Jones is the President and CEO of OneTen, a coalition designed to close the opportunity gap for Black talent in the United States by working with America’s leading executives, companies, and talent developers to hire and advance one million Black Americans without four-year degrees into family-sustaining roles.

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