By Charlene Hunter James
Every February, Black History Month gives us an opportunity to be more purposeful in remembering African Americans’ rich history, including the value that our community has always placed on education. This focus on education continues to be realized to this day as young African Americans are entering fields that once had limited access to them and are pursuing graduate degrees at an above average rate.
Our forefathers and mothers would be proud, my parents would be proud, and certainly I am proud. Education has brought African American millennials the freedom of choice that we were always told it would.
From pioneers like Frederick Douglass, a brilliant slave-turned-abolitionist-leader, to Mae C. Jemison, the first African American woman to travel in space, African Americans from an early age are taught the value that education has in “leveling the playing field.” Many decades later, African Americans are still investing in education.
But the increasing cost of college education also has created challenges later in life when they are getting ready to leave the workplace. According to a U.S. Department of Education report, black graduates are more likely to take on additional student debt, often because they go back to school to obtain additional degrees to better able to compete for jobs that their counterparts are able to secure right out of college. To this day, barriers still exist that make it tougher for African American applicants to find jobs commensurate with their college degrees.
This has a direct impact on retirement planning, a reason why AARP — organization I’m proud to serve as a volunteer president in Texas — has a keen interest in the issue. While the belief in the power of education to topple all obstacles and equalize the playing field runs deep in the black community, we have to make sure that we are having healthy dialogues with policymakers, family and the community about the disparity which currently exists between white and black student loan debt, as well as the impact that accumulating long-term student debt could have on one’s financial security.
While retirement planning may not be at the forefront of today’s active Black millennials’ thinking, as they age their attitudes will change and hopefully they will recognize the need to be financially prepared. The issue must be addressed. Overall, Black millennials are doing well, and in many cases, better than well. As a mother of a millennial, I’m proud of what our young people are accomplishing, and the doors that education continues to open for this success. At the same time, we need to educate them on planning for their financial future. Financial literacy is the first step for financial planning. AARP has some resources that can help: AARP Money (www.aarp.org/money) runs the gamut from Living on a Budget to Managing Debt.
In the end, what’s the recipe for success? As noted educator and philanthropist Mary McLeod Bethune noted: “Believe in yourself, learn, and never stop wanting to build a better world.” I’m proud to say that this is what our young people are doing. They are creating and shaping their world in a way that will change it for those to come. Through education and financial planning, their path to making such an impact will continue to get stronger, along with their long term financial security.