When Elijah Cummings arrived at Howard University as a freshman, all he had was a suitcase and two trash bags full of clothes. "Boy, you've come here to get an education now," Cummings recalls his father telling him. His father was a former sharecropper with a third-grade education. After graduating from college in 1973, Cummings went on to become a lawyer and a U.S. congressman.

The Maryland Democrat returned to Howard last week, bringing Senator Elizabeth Warren, a fellow Democrat, with him to talk about student loans and social mobility. The two lawmakers believe that going to college can help people find high-paying jobs. But they're worried that student debt can make it harder for graduates to achieve financial stability.

Today the majority of all college students—at two-year and four-year, private and public institutions—rely on grants and loans to pay tuition. Americans now hold about $1.2 trillion in student debt, and right now most borrowers aren't paying off their debts at all.

Cummings and Warren say they're particularly concerned about the effect student debt has on African American borrowers. "African American students are more likely to take on debt—and more debt—than white, Latino, and Asian American students," Cummings said at the event. In 2013, 42 percent of African American families had student loans, compared to 28 percent of white families, according to the Urban Institute, a Washington, D.C., think tank.

That racial gap is driven by an enormous wealth disparity, Cummings said. The average African American household has a total net worth of $11,000, according a Pew Research Center analysis. That's not enough to pay for even a single semester at Howard, and it's barely enough to cover a year of tuition at a public university like the University of Maryland-Baltimore County. In contrast, the average white family has a net worth of $141,900.

The discrepancy in household wealth means that a white family and a black family can have the same income but a radically different financial situation. It's a disparity rooted in history, as The Atlantic's Ta-Nehisi Coates has explained, and it means that the average black family today essentially lives without a financial safety net.

Student loans can be a lifeline, helping students finance college degrees even as tuition prices rise. Tyrone Hankerson, a current Howard senior, told forum attendees that he's financing his education through a combination of scholarships, work-study aid, and a loan his parents took out on his behalf. After he graduates, he plans on going to law school.

But loan payments can become a heavy burden. One Howard graduate, Latechia Mitchell, said that her undergraduate degree was largely financed by scholarships, but she took out $60,000 for graduate school and to get a teacher certification. Although she and her husband both have college degrees and professional jobs, they can afford to pay only the interest on their cumulative student debt.

"These degrees have come at a steep cost," Mitchell said. She works a second job during the summer, her family forgoes vacations, and they are postponing buying a home. Now she and her husband are worried they won't be able to set aside money to help their children pay for college.

Previous research has shown that African Americans may experience a lower return on their investment in education for a number of complicated reasons, including lack of access to wealthy social networks and discrimination in hiring. Add disproportionate levels of student-loan debt, and young African Americans face a discouragingly steep path to financial security, even with the benefit of a college degree.

Of course, everyone who takes out a student loan takes a risk. "One of the real challenges with student debt is people don't have an economic crystal ball," said Rohit Chopra, the assistant director and student-loan ombudsman at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

Nobody can predict how the economy will shift, or what personal financial shocks—like a parent's illness or a sudden layoff—the future has in store. Student loans are also a relatively new phenomenon, at least at this volume. As the economy improves and wages rise, people like Mitchell may find their loan payments more manageable.

There are also steps that institutions, policymakers, and individuals can take to decrease debt loads. Howard, for example, gives graduating seniors a rebate on part of their final semester's tuition. Financial education can help students make better decisions before they take out loans, and federal income-based repayment programs can keep payments manageable after graduation.

Warren also argued that Washington lawmakers have two options: They can give existing borrowers some debt relief, and they can use federal dollars as a lever to bring down the cost of college. She's proposed allowing students to refinance their loans at a low interest rate (and to pay for the change by raising taxes on millionaires).

Grassroots advocacy will pressure lawmakers to focus on this issue, Warren said. And she encouraged event attendees to get in touch with their representatives, sign petitions, and get friends, family, and local organizations involved. "This is democracy," she said. "It may be slow, but ultimately, democracy works."