February 28, 2020

Warren, Booker, Harris 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. -- United States Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), along with Senators Cory Booker (D-N.J.), and Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), 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.

This letter follows a June 2018 letter Senator Warren led with Senator Harris and Representatives Mark Takano (D-Calif.), Alma Adams (D-N.C.), and Adriano Espaillat (D-N.Y.) to Education Secretary DeVos, raising concerns regarding the challenges facing students of color in the federal student loan system and calling on the Education Department to take a series of steps to study and mitigate these challenges. 

Senator Warren has been a champion for students throughout her seven years in the Senate, fighting to create more opportunities for young people and protect America's students from predatory for-profit colleges and greedy student loan companies.

  • She has worked with House Majority Whip James E. Clyburn (D-S.C.) to close the racial wealth gap by introducing legislation, the Student Loan Debt Relief Act, which would cancel student loan debt for 42 million Americans;
  • She prioritized student debt relief and fought to lower student loan interest rates, introducing the Bank on Students Loan Fairness Act as her first bill in Congress;
  • She conducted rigorous oversight of the for-profit college industry and helped secure three-quarters of a billion dollars in debt relief for students who were cheated by predatory for-profit colleges, including 4,500 Massachusetts students and more than 28,000 students across the country;
  • She successfully advocated for stronger student loan protections for all students, including by passing a bipartisan law that prevented the Department of Education from eliminating competition among student loan servicers; and
  • She successfully fought to create a $700 million student loan forgiveness fund for tens of thousands of Americans who work in public service but may be denied the public service loan forgiveness relief they were promised.