Free College Tops Black Lives Reparations List

Better education and loan forgiveness are key strategies to address disparities for Black communities and their next generations.
Georgetown University

Photo by aimintang / iStock.

This is the first in a series of conversations with contributors to the platform’s demands.

The Movement for Black Lives kicked into high gear last month when more than 50 affiliated organizations released demands for social change. The demands include five reparations with a list of 40 possible ways to achieve them. These range from a guaranteed minimum livable income for all Black people to incorporating an examination of colonialism and slavery into school curricula.

“The government, responsible corporations, and other institutions that have profited off of the harm they have inflicted on Black people must repair the harm done,” reads the document.

23 states spend more per pupil in affluent districts than in impoverished districts.

At the top of the list is education. Specifically, it demands full and free access to quality educational opportunities for all Black people, including undocumented and currently and formerly incarcerated people. The platform also calls for technical education, educational support programs, and the retroactive forgiveness of student loans.

The focus on education as reparation isn’t surprising considering 23 states spend more per pupil in affluent districts than in impoverished districts with a high concentration of Black students, according to the National Center for Education.

Kesi Foster, coordinator at Urban Youth Collaborative and contributor to the education portion of the platform, explains why the education demands—and the reparations movement in general—are essential to a just and equitable future.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited. 

Olivia Anderson: How did this Movement for Black Lives reparations document come together?

Kesi Foster: There was a convening last summer in Cleveland that brought together Black organizers, Black community members, folks in the Black community from all over the country. There were a number of conversations around “Where do we go from here?” Out of that convening began the process to build this platform. For over a year, the 50 or so organizations involved in developing the platform were also reaching out to organizations and folks around the country to help. I helped author the free-college piece.

Anderson: What influenced your involvement?

Foster: I’m a coordinator at Urban Youth Collaborative. I’ve been working for educational justice in New York City for over 10 years now, particularly with Black and Latino communities. High schools lead our campaigns, which are grounded in fighting for and struggling for racial justice and equity in public education. What we’ve seen is, through some intentional investment in priorities and policies, society actually building a cradle-to-prison pipeline. So we’re trying to deconstruct that and build a stable cradle-to-higher-education pipeline.

My family and my community helped push me into the field. Growing up in New York City, there were always people involved in movements, like after Amadou Diallo and Sean Bell were killed. It’s always been present in my life.

Anderson: In your opinion, what is most important about this document?

Foster: I was excited to see that people were building this platform around the framework of reparations. Reparations is calling for an acknowledgment that historical and current policies and practices are harming a particular community—and we are talking specifically about the Black community here in this country. Things are happening in communities where all the students are Black and [Latino] that wouldn’t be acceptable if these were White communities.

“These policies are intentional and they're harming folks.”

Anderson: It’s a different set of standards.

Foster: It’s entirely a different set of standards, but it’s also intentional. The federal government has this COPS (Community Oriented Policing Services) program in which they paid over $837 million to put school resource officers in schools even though the only research they have is that the presence of police in schools doesn’t lead to safer places for young Black people. It does lead to a disproportionate number of Black students being pushed into the criminal justice system.

We could reallocate that money, divest it from putting police in schools and invest it in some of the programs that actually help Black students K-12 thrive. That would be a sign of the federal government acknowledging the harm and mistakes and rectifying them right away.

This is why a call for reparations and a frame around reparations is so strong. Because it is pointing out that these policies are intentional and they’re harming folks. And not just folks that are in school now, but folks that have gone through these systems for generations.

Anderson: The platform calls for full and free access to education for currently and formerly incarcerated Black people, but also undocumented citizens. Why?

Foster: Oftentimes, conversations around undocumented students remain rooted in the Latino community, but we know in cities like New York we have many undocumented students living in Black communities. We know this impacts our community as well.

When we’re thinking about reparations, there are ways in which people can directly connect reparations back to slavery, but there are also ways in which you can connect reparations to policies that have been steeped in anti-Blackness since slavery. These policies impacted and affected all Black communities. That goes for redlining for housing. That goes for how the GI bill was distributed. That goes for educational opportunities still not being accessible, particularly to undocumented and incarcerated or formerly incarcerated folks.

It’s really critical to lift up those students.

Anderson: How does the forgiveness of student loans tie into issues of racial justice?

Foster: Yeah, so we looked at the disproportionate impact student loans have particularly on Black students. Many Black students have been caught in these for-profit colleges in which students are leaving with higher student loans than public universities or private universities. Students going into community colleges are also getting caught with these high student loans. So it felt like wiping student loan debt is a step toward creating a higher education system that’s going to benefit everyone.

People get a sense—even in the public universities—that through Pell Grants many low-income students don’t have to worry about tuition, which is actually not the case. You have the cost it takes to travel to school, you have books that cost more than ever now, you have all these extra costs that add up.

“If you don't have a vision for liberation, you'll never get there.” 

Anderson: And how do we alleviate the costs?

Foster: We have seen some states start to introduce tuition-free college. I wouldn’t say “free higher education”—it’s far from being free. Tennessee has passed some legislation. I think Detroit is starting a program that is going to start off as a private program and eventually move into a public program that’ll provide tuition-free college for students graduating from Detroit high schools. Those are starting points.

None of the programs really reaches the level of providing fully funded, free college education that covers all the costs you incur while you’re attending college, but they do start to look like paths to get there.

Some of the things that are problematic about those bills is that they don’t look at higher education as a reparation. So some of those legislations have this “if you get free tuition, you have to work in the state for a number of years before you graduate” premise. That is not at all the model we are pushing for.

Anderson: What do you think the first steps toward loan forgiveness could look like?

Foster: I think the first step would be some sort of federal legislation. Many student loans that people hold now are federal loans. They owe the federal government, so there is the ability to pass federal legislation that would wipe these federal loans away.

Anderson: If fully implemented, what impact could these education reparations have?

Foster: Giving young people the opportunity to get a higher education without cost is going to open up the doors for many more young people.

If you don’t have a vision for liberation, you’ll never get there. It’s a visionary platform that people should wrestle with and explore when organizing in their communities. It can be used as a foundation for trying to push more transformational changes. Policies alone will not transform the world into the world we want to live in, but it’s a starting place.