December 15, 2016; Washington Post

Danielle Douglas-Gabriel covers the issue of student debt for the Washington Post. She reviews this important study just completed by the United Negro College Fund that includes infographics for your at-a-glance reference.

Wealth inequality over the past several decades and the consequent burden of student loan debt was a recurring issue in the 2016 presidential elections and an ongoing subject of concern at NPQ. This study offers an even more penetrating glimpse into the lives of those most burdened. While people of color are a growing percentage of the U.S. population, the wealth held by the bottom 90 percent of U.S. households continues to shrink. The wealth divide is therefore by both class and race. The historic injustices and the exclusion of communities of color from traditional avenues of building wealth contribute to inequality. This study provides new insights into the extent of the financial stresses endured by HBCU students.

  • Four out of 5 undergraduates attending historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) rely on student loans.
  • Twenty-five percent of these students borrowed more than $40,000, four times the rate of their counterparts at other schools.
  • The median cumulative federal debt incurred by graduates of HBCUs was $26,266 in 2012, 77 percent higher that the median debt burden of other federal borrowers.
  • More than 75 percent of HBCU students who received bachelor’s degrees in 2012 used a combination of federal and private loans to cover the costs, compared with 43 percent of students at other public and private nonprofit schools.
  • Approximately 60 percent of HBCU borrowers in 2013 were making progress in paying off their student loans seven years after leaving school, compared with 85 percent of borrowers at other institutions.
  • Nearly 75 percent of HBCU students receive Pell grants, the federal program that provides money for the country’s poorest college students.

In 2015, Douglas-Gabriel began an article on this subject this way:

A day away from crossing the stage at Montclair State University’s graduation, Evangelia Stone reflects on her journey from community college, the “amazing” professors she met along the way and the $50,000 in student loans she took out to get a bachelors’ in sociology.

Evangelia Stone was the first in her family to graduate from college. She received Pell Grants. She frugally attended Atlantic Cape Community College in southern New Jersey. The two schools she attended could not afford to offer scholarships or grants. She qualified for several thousand dollars from the New Jersey Commission for the Blind and Visually Impaired. Student debt made up the rest of what it took to graduate, but low-income and first-generation students borrow at higher rates.

“Nobody should have to spend this much money, period. But in-state students going to public universities…the fact that I’m leaving with this much debt is absurd,” said Stone, 25, who plans to pursue a master’s degree in social work at Rutgers University this fall. “Higher education is supposed to be a public good, not just a private purchase that wealthy students get to enjoy.”

At a time when college credentials are increasingly required for viable non-technical employment, foundations and individual philanthropists would do well to support HBCUs, which have a small fraction of the endowment income that their peers enjoy. Federal policymakers would do even more good by shaping federal student aid policies and programs in ways that help struggling students earn their degrees with less debt. This report recommends that the complexity of student aid be reduced, that Pell Grants receive more federal funding, that more work-study opportunities be offered, and that federal loans be made less costly for students and their families. Douglas-Gabriel notes, “The pending reauthorization of the Higher Education Act offers an opportunity for Congress to ameliorate these problems.”

Historically black colleges vary widely; they are public and private, selective and open enrolling, religious and secular, and range from small to large. Established prior to 1964 (i.e., before the Civil Rights Act), HBCUs were created during a time of explicit discrimination and national hostility to their mission. It is not surprising therefore that none of them have the resources to make the promises Harvard makes to all its students:

Once you are admitted to Harvard, we work closely with your family to ensure you can afford to come here. Because we seek the best students regardless of their ability to pay, we are committed to meeting 100 percent of demonstrated financial need for all four years.

That is a fine thing to promise. If only the number of black students at America’s elite schools had not been declining since 1994. And, to give credit to many black students with their own priorities and sensitivities, even if Harvard accepts a black student, it is far from a foregone conclusion that that student wants the Harvard experience. But all students do want and deserve a fair chance at life. To graduate with debilitating debt is grossly unfair for all the reasons named above and many, many more.—James Schaffer