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.