After a video was posted online about Michael’s undergraduate student debt, people were upset at his decision to take out more loans to go to graduate school. He already owed $75,000 for his bachelor’s degree, and his full-time job working at a nonprofit only paid $22,000 a year, hardly enough to pay his bills. But Michael had to go to graduate school. There was really no other option in his mind. A bachelor’s degree is just the minimum requirement for even a sliver of the stability that his white peers have, and even that only happens to a lucky few.
Michael knows the statistics. The median wealth among white high school dropouts is significantly larger, at $51,300, than black families headed by someone with a college degree ($25,900), according to a 2014 study by the think tank Demos. When FHA loans and the GI Bill helped usher in a new educated and home-owning white middle class, redlining and predatory lending prevented many black people from accumulating wealth in the twentieth century. Civil rights legislation, affirmative action and other programs to increase diversity helped black people for a bit: they entered higher-paying professional jobs in the seventies and eighties, and for a while they were making progress. But after the 2008 financial recession and housing crisis, black families saw 31 percent of their wealth evaporate (compared with 11 percent for white people), which was already far behind white people. Today, white families are recovering from the recession, but a report published in 2018 by the Center for American Progress found that the median wealth for a black family was $17,600. White families by comparison had $171,000.
So what are we supposed to do to make our dreams come true? Education, we are told, coupled with hard work, will solve all our problems. Or at least that’s the fantasy pushed on young kids today. But attending college isn’t the same as it was for our parents, when college costs were much lower. For example, tuition and fees at public and private non- profit four-year colleges has increased 247 percent since 1975.
College tuition has become a challenge for millennials of all ethnicities, who have 300 percent more debt than our parents, but for brown and black millennials, who often don’t have the same amount of wealth or security as their white counterparts, the cost can be prohibitive.
Michael is ready to change that narrative. Michael has a lot of student debt—almost $100,000 at this point—and he’s trying to free himself from it the only way he knows how: getting another degree.
He was born in 1992, during what he called the “last of the good days” for industrial workers in a town in northeastern Ohio, where steel, football, and God mattered — in that order. His dad, an electrical engineer with Delphi, a subsidiary of GM, was making good money and, despite the fact that he divorced Michael’s mom when Michael was three, had ensured a pretty solidly middle-class lifestyle for his family. He worked hard as one of the first black steel tradesmen to graduate from his program and dedicated his life to his craft. Yet the old man, with his crippled fingers and weary heart, didn’t want the same for his young son and drilled into his head that college wasn’t an option — it was mandatory for survival.
He taught Michael and his younger sister how to read at an early age, and he was constantly making Michael watch videos of great speeches from people like Martin Luther King Jr. and John F. Kennedy. He pushed him harder than his sister, he told Michael because he thought as a young black man in America he might find things a bit more difficult. And for a while Michael’s father was right.
Michael began acting out during his elementary and middle school years. He was bullied and beaten up every day in school, and his stability at home began to deteriorate. First, his mother, who was dealing with drug and alcohol addictions, kept breaking promises to meet up and spend time with him. His father was trying hard, but it was tough. His father had found new relationships with other women, and that soon became problematic. According to Michael, he was sexually abused twice, by his father’s girlfriends. He didn’t tell anyone of those encounters at the time, or of another similar experience by a neighborhood bully, but anger was building. He was lost and had a hard time connecting to a world that seemed increasingly unfriendly. On top of all that, after Michael’s grandmother died, his grief-stricken father, who was a recovering addict, relapsed.
But his dad remained committed to his family, and his work ethic enabled him to power through the day even when he was high. He would get up every day at five a.m., drop Michael and his sister off with the babysitter, work not just one shift but two, get high as a kite, sleep, and then repeat it all the next day. Michael knew something was off and was unhappy. Plus Michael missed his mother. “My dad was trying all he could, giving me all the love he had, and I just wanted to know why she wouldn’t love me. If you take that with growing up in my father’s household, with the juxtaposition of the hood with the world outside of it, it was kind of like Kendrick Lamar, ‘good kid, M.A.D.D. city.’ All of the factors around me, everything was pulling me in a different direction,” Michael told me. He was trying every way he could to cope. Back then, he said, he would “spazz out,” “shout,” or throw things across the room at school at the drop of a dime. He once even broke a table. He said he was mimicking his surroundings, a community he said that was filled with violence, and trying to prove himself as a young man. In his everyday world, violence along with “physical dominance” was how you proved yourself. He didn’t have anyone to talk to about what was really happening in his life, so he played into that narrative, with even his own aunt telling his father that Michael was “violent and crazy.” “It was really the definition of being misunderstood. Folks had no idea,” Michael said. In his own words, though, he wasn’t crazy; he was just an “angry kid” trying to make sense of the world we live in.
His life changed when one substitute teacher, Mr. K, sat down and asked him what was going on. He realized that no one had actually ever asked him before; instead he was usually just suspended or shuffled off to detention. Mr. K was different from the other adults at school, and Michael said the teacher really listened to the challenges he was dealing with. They started off talking sports and then worked their way to family life, and Michael slowly opened up. Mr. K didn’t treat the conversation like an extended after-school special: when it was over, the teacher simply told him to get back to work. But it was the prefix Mr. K used in front of Michael’s name that got his attention.
“‘Okay, Doctor, well, let’s get back to class,’” Michael glowingly recalled. “Doctor.” Michael hadn’t really thought of becoming any type of doctor, but he liked the sound of it, and the name stuck. From then on and throughout high school, Mr. K. referred to Michael as “Doctor,” and Michael decided he was actually going to live up to that moniker, though he didn’t exactly know how. “I think for me he saw a young black man with potential who just had some circumstances that made it difficult for him to function. With that, he was really able to take a chance on me.” Michael was also put into gifted and talented classes because he scored so well on tests. He had also just begun to participate in track and field, and finally it seemed, things were looking up.
Michael’s father had been a star football player in high school and in college. He played for a while but left when he needed to make money, noting that, as a black man in America in the 1960s, getting a good job with benefits always took precedence. Eventually the years of first working in a car factory, then a steel factory, took a toll. He had made good money, enough to raise his family, but his body started to decline. Michael witnessed the change over the years and watched his dad’s body slowly give out, as carpal tunnel in his fingers left him barely able to hold a coffee mug. At that point, Michael knew factory life wasn’t for him and decided he needed to do something different, though he wasn’t exactly sure what. His dad, too, saw the industry shift as his own future at the company became less secure. He was forced to retire and, concerned about what kind of future his son would have, started saving up for Michael's college education.
Jobs had been leaving Michael’s city for decades, ever since Bill Clinton signed the North American Free Trade Agreement in December 1993 that removed tariffs between Canada, the United States, and Mexico and created one of the largest free trade zones in the world. Though often portrayed as a white working- and middle-class issue, the loss of manufacturing hit black families like Michael’s hard. According to Robert Scott, the director of trade and manufacturing policy for the Economic Policy Institute, black people lost 281,000 high-paying manufacturing jobs between 2001 and 2011. As factories and steel mills continued to close, the population shrank to a fraction of what it was, and by 2009, the year Michael began high school, a reporter for the Associated Press said the city, now with a declining population of 43,000, was “littered with abandoned dreams.” Yet by the time he was ready for college, Michael wasn’t worried about what he would do with his future or his father’s shrinking checks. His destiny had become clear. He would become an all-American athlete.
Michael’s tangential interest in athletics began during middle school as a way to alleviate some anger, release some steam. In his freshman year he lettered varsity in track and field and dressed varsity for football, something that was rare at his high school, which is home to nine state championships. He was doing well, though he wasn’t perfect. During his sophomore year, feeling the high of being a varsity track player, he began to skip classes. Despite the fact that he had a good year in track, he was put on academic probation. Devastated but not deterred he became the water boy for the football team, just to stay near the sport, and then he got his act together and was back on the team the next year. By senior year he was being recruited by several Big 10 schools in the Midwest for track and field.
For him, sports was a verifiable way out of what seemed to be a predetermined life in the factories. It was the only path he saw. His grades were above average but nothing spectacular, and with a father with a solid middle-class job, he wouldn’t be considered poor enough to qualify for the best financial aid packages to college, yet his family still didn’t have enough to pay for him to go. So sports, he decided, had to be his future. Besides, sports was what his town lived and breathed, and he too wanted to be a part of that legendary group of men and women from his community that people talked about for decades.
Michael admitted that for black youth, sports sometimes seem to be the more reachable path to success: “The way our society is set up, it’s an easy grab.” It’s not as easy as it seems. One study found that the average high school basketball player has a .003 percent chance of making it to the pros. A 2017 study from The Undefeated found that the number of athletes who come from poor families without degrees (known as “first-gens”) have decreased. More student athletes are coming from middle-class backgrounds, meaning that sports as a way out for this generation is also not as accessible as it was in the past.
Even “making it” can take its toll, and Michael knew he was playing by different rules. “I had to work when my teammates wouldn’t work. Show up early. Leave late. It was a grind. I had to make a lot of sacrifices.” It wasn’t easy, Michael said, and his body, much like his father’s, is still paying the cost for his dreams. He’s in a perpetual state of pain: his knees hurt; his back hurts; his shoulders hurt. He has arthritis, and he has trouble walking and moving and even sometimes thinking as a result of complications he believes are from concussions. Back in high school, however, Michael was flying high.
Several college recruiters were after him, but only two mattered in his mind. If you were from his school, the unspoken rule was that the best athletes went to Michigan or Ohio State. His teammate was going to Michigan, and it seemed almost manifest that Michael should go to Ohio. His cousin was there as a running back, and he had been recruited by the track and field team and given the opportunity to walk on the football team. But after a few visits to Ohio State, Michael started to second-guess his choice. Whenever he visited, it seemed the students he met would only be running or partying, and he saw little else. “They treat athletes like gods there, and I felt like I wouldn’t have gotten out of college what I should have.” After a visit to another large public university, the school choice of many of his family members, as well as his father, he decided that despite the fact that they weren’t in a top five conference, it was the best place for him. They had top-notch academics, and he received a full scholarship — a rarity for track and field players. Recruiters swooped down even more when Michael placed in a top time for the hurdles, and his coach urged him to hold out for other offers. But Michael’s mind was made up. With that decision complete, Michael finished senior year on a high. He had a dope-ass prom, a high school sweetheart he was happy with, and his team had just brought home the state championship for track and field — the first ever for the school. It was a good ending to his high school career.
Michael’s life as a college athlete started off well. Sure, there were a few stumbling blocks along the way, like the unanticipated expense of toiletries and the heavier clothing he needed to buy for the colder weather in his new college town, which weren’t covered by his scholarship nor the $5,000 that his dad, now fully retired, had saved up for him. He didn’t think much of it; he took a small loan of about $2,000 and focused on his athletic career. The more rigorous world of collegiate sports was initially tough on him, but he adjusted, and freshman year started to breeze by. He ran through part of the indoor season until he injured his back and was unable to run hurdles anymore. His coaches urged him to go on and push through the pain, disagreeing with him about the “validity or severity” of his ailments, but he couldn’t. He tried harder and eventually learned to work through some of the discomfort, but his season was shot. The school reduced his scholarship, which was based on his performance in track, and the next year Michael had to take out more loans.
Fired up and feeling better, he had a promising start to his sophomore season, but then the stomach pains began. He started to throw up during practices, and he couldn’t figure out why. He had never been ill during track except once when he ate too close to a practice. So the coach sent him to the team doctor for cold or stomach virus symptoms. It didn’t help. Practices were getting harder for Michael; he was regularly fatigued and bloated and experienced jabbing pains in his stomach. He was frustrated by his body, but mostly he was sick. Eventually he saw a specialist and was diagnosed with H. Pylori, a bacteria in the lining of the stomach that can cause ulcers, irritable bowel syndrome, and even stomach cancer. Once again, he tried to work through the pain, but he found it increasingly difficult. Things only became worse when he injured his quad muscle during practice. He was going to miss another season of outdoor running.
By the end of the year, his coach sat him down and told him the bad news: they wouldn’t be able to bring him back on a scholarship the next year. In fact, they couldn’t even cover his books. His coach asked if he wanted to compete in tournaments with the team to see if he could earn his scholarship back, but Michael now had to get real. If he was going to complete his education, he’d have to find a job. With the addition now of medical bills, he knew things were about to get tight, so he decided to end his career as an athlete. “We had that conversation, and that was that,” he said with a sigh. He never looked back.
For a while Michael wondered what he should do. His dad told him he could come back home and work for a while, but he knew going home was a death sentence, in both the metaphorical and perhaps physical sense. The neighborhood where he grew up was changing; there were new dope boys around, ones who may not have sheltered him from the streets and urged him to go to college, the way the guys did when he was coming up. Michael felt it would have been dangerous to go back. “I either would not reach my potential, I would become frustrated and burnt out, or I would become a product of my environment and get involved in illegal activities or just be a bystander.”
So he borrowed more money, about $18,000 dollars that year, and pushed ahead. He had become involved in student leadership and decided to pursue that further. Some of those activities, like being a part of the Black United Students Executive Board and eventually becoming student body president, made up for scholarship money he had lost, but he was starting to struggle financially. When I asked him if he’d been worried about his mounting debt, he bluntly answered that it was a mode of survival: “Really I didn’t care. I needed to finish school. This was something I set out to do. This was something that someone said that I couldn’t do, so any way to make that possible I was going to do it. Taking out the additional loan money—I knew what it was, I knew that it was going to put me in a nice sizable amount of debt, but I was going to graduate, and that was really it.”
Things were tight for a while, and Michael had no backup when things didn’t go his way. He noticed this was especially a problem for many black students who didn’t have parents to rely on for extra cash. Some were homeless and slept on different couches every week; others never had enough for food. He was in the latter camp and had to learn how to take food so he wouldn’t go hungry. “I stole food all five years that I was in school from our cafeterias. Whether it was sliding past the cashier without them noticing or knowing somebody that worked at an eatery on campus that would do the fake card swipe.” Even with that, Michael said, he didn’t eat the most balanced meals. And by the time he graduated, his blood pressure was astronomical from all the cheap food he was putting in his body. “I had issues with my blood sugar out of stress because you know you can only get so far on eating ramen, spam, Vienna sausage, and cans of tuna. I did what I could.”
It was a different world from his white friends, who he said live a completely different life from him and his black cohorts. “Most of my [white] peers, they were middle class. They would have all these nice expensive things. They didn’t have an idea of what it was like to know that hey, I’m going to go home and I’m probably not going to eat today. Or I’m going to sleep in my office because I don’t have a car, and my place is so far away, and I worked so late into the night that it’s not worth it for me to walk the hour and fifteen minutes it is to my apartment. They didn’t have a concept of those things. It was clear at the most basic level that there was disagreement and separation among us just because I lived a life that they would never understand.”
Michael took jobs wherever he could, on campus, off campus at a barbecue restaurant, working up to three jobs at a time just so he could make ends meet. Racial tensions were flaring on campus, and the police shooting of Tamir Rice happened not too far from the school; he went through a breakup and soon realized he would need an extra year to finish. Exhausted, worn out, and depressed, he began drinking every day. But he was determined not to leave and pushed on. It wasn’t all bad, he tells me, making sure I understood that college wasn’t entirely disastrous—he had some good moments too.
Michael refused to fail his family and especially his father, so he worked hard to keep going. He said this kind of pressure is something unique to black millennials who are trying to deal with getting good grades, financial difficulties, and race: “Black students have to exhibit a great deal of triumph in dealing with the pressures of college and being able to finish. It’s no small thing for a black kid to graduate from college these days.” In 2015, with $76,000 worth of debt, he graduated. He turned down corporate internships to work in the nonprofit sector, as a marketing and advertising coordinator with a nonprofit in Atlanta.
A few months later, determined to continue with his studies and become “Doctor,” he enrolled in a master’s program. The program cost a little less than $20,000 a year, and his new job paid him just $2,000 more than that—before taxes—meaning Michael would have to take out more loans. He knew that by the time he finished his master’s degree in Africana studies, he would be over $100,000 in debt, but higher education is important to him.
Like other studies noted earlier, a report by Brookings found that graduate degrees, while often a riskier option for black people, who have more student debt than their white counterparts after getting a bachelor’s degree (in the 2008 cohort black graduates had $52,726 dollars in debt versus $28,000 for white people), still “confer large returns” on the job market for all groups, including black people.
Michael seems to draw the line, however, at a master’s degree. He said he already plans to apply to doctoral programs but will only enroll if it is a fully funded degree. Ultimately he hopes that when he finishes up his studies, he can get into a debt forgiveness program that would eliminate some of his loans after working in a nonprofit or government job for five years.
Michael knows the amount of money he has borrowed is staggering to some people, but he seems genuinely unbothered because he believes his loans helped get him through school and set him up for success. “I think any decision I would have made with my loans would have affected me somewhere else. If I would have taken out less loan money, I would have had to work more. You think about different places where you wasted a dollar here and there, I would take some of those things back, but then again I probably wouldn’t because I try to live my life with no regret. I think long and hard about decisions before I make them. Every decision I’ve ever made in my life I made it for a reason, so I wouldn’t take any of it back. I don’t regret any of it. I would do it all again if I had to.”
Still Michael said any kids he has in the future won’t be taking out loans for college. He’s already started financial planning and is trying to teach more black folk about financial literacy. “You can’t just blindly sign a paper, which is what most of us do. We have to be able to be smart about it. If you’re going to take out student loans and have a stack of refund money, do something smart with it. Either keep it to pay tuition in the future so that you don’t have to take out as much money or use it to open an IRA. Use it to attain something that you can build again. Use it to attain an asset. There are ways that we can use student debt to be successful and not take out so much.
Michael hopes to one day become a professor in cultural and Africana studies so that he can support students the way people helped him. For now he will continue to work in the nonprofit sector, where he is passionate about assisting young people to make positive changes in their lives. “My story is not a sob story. I just happen to have a lot of debt. I’m doing great; I’ve done things that people dream about doing. I’ve done a lot of things in my twenty-four years that a lot of people don’t do in their entire lifespan. By no means do I pity myself, do I feel sorry for where I am. I made some choices, and I got to pay some people the money back.” ●
Illustrations by Jonell Joshua for BuzzFeed News.
Adapted from the book It Was All a Dream: A New Generation Confronts the Broken Promise to Black America by Reniqua Allen. Copyright© 2019 Reprinted by permission of Nation Books, New York, NY. All rights reserved. To learn more about It Was All a Dream, click here.
Reniqua Allen is an Eisner Fellow at the Nation Institute and a former fellow at New America and Demos. She has written for the New York Times, Washington Post, Guardian, Teen Vogue, and more, and has produced for WNYC, PBS, and MSNBC. Allen lives in the Bronx.