February 28, 2020

Harris, Warren, Booker Press Education Dept.'s Office of Civil Rights on Crisis Facing Student Loan Borrowers of Color

Senators Call on OCR to Investigate and Address Alarming Racial Disparities in Student Loan System, Enforce Nation's Civil Rights Laws at Colleges and Student Loan Servicers 

WASHINGTON, D.C. – U.S. Senators Kamala D. Harris (D-CA), Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), and Cory Booker (D-NJ) on Thursday wrote to the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights (OCR) requesting information about how OCR plans to address alarming racial disparities in the federal student loan system through vigorous enforcement of the nation's civil rights laws.

OCR is responsible for enforcing the country's civil rights laws prohibiting discrimination in programs or activities that receive federal funding from the Department of Education, including discrimination on the basis of race, color, and national origin prohibited by Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. However, despite its statutory and moral obligation to examine and address the root causes of racial disparities in the student loan program, OCR has done little to enforce federal civil rights laws in a manner that addresses racial disparities in student borrowing and student loan outcomes. In fact, there has been no public examination by OCR into how the predatory practices of for-profit colleges or student loan servicers and debt collectors contribute to the racialized outcomes of the student loan program.

In their letter, the senators cited several alarming statistics showing evidence of massive racial disparities in the federal student aid system, noting that Black students are 20% more likely to borrow federal student loans, often need to borrow more, and default at more than twice the rate of white students. The senators also noted that these persistent racial disparities also affect Latinx and Native student borrowers, with one-fifth of Latinx borrowers and 40% of Native student borrowers defaulting on their student loans, compared to just 13 % of their white peers.

"The nation's civil rights laws are clear: racial discrimination in the provision of federal student loans is illegal," the senators wrote in their letter. "OCR not only has a role to play in addressing racial disparities in our federal student loan system; it has an obligation because these disparities exacerbate this country's racial wealth gaps and damage the financial lives of millions of student loan borrowers of color."

To address their concerns, the senators urged OCR to:

  • Detail all current and ongoing activities to address alarming racial disparities in student borrowing and student loan outcomes, including any relevant enforcement actions OCR has taken since January 2017;
  • Launch a comprehensive investigation into the roles that predatory colleges and the student loan industry play in contributing to racial disparities in student borrowing and student loan outcomes; and
  • Develop a new plan to address racial disparities, which should include new policy guidance to all entities involved in federal student aid programs regarding their current responsibilities under federal civil rights law, and any recommendations to Congress for how to address racial disparities in student borrowing and student loan outcomes.

The senators asked that OCR respond to their letter by March 26, 2020.

The full text of the letter can be found here.

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