According to the United States Department of Education, nearly 1 in 8 Americans currently have outstanding student loan debt. Even worse, the vast majority of students graduating from university these days exit with $30,000 or more in student loan debt. This crisis of student loan debt has, unfortunately, disproportionately impacted the lives of one demographic in particular: Black students.
The Student Loan Epidemic
While nearly 1 in 8 Americans take on student loans to help pay for their education, the African American community is statistically more likely to be impacted by this issue. This is true whether a student attends a predominately white institution (PWI) or Historically Black College or University (HBCU). However, according to the United Negro College Fund, 80% of students attending HBCUs (Historically Black Colleges & Universities) fund their degrees using student loans. That’s a considerably higher rate of borrowing than that at PWIs, where 55% of students fund their education with student loans.
The same studies also show that HBCU students also borrow more money. In fact, 25% of HBCU students borrow $40,000 or more. Compare that to PWI college students, only 6% of whom borrow that amount. For HBCU students and graduates, then, student loans are a profoundly mixed blessing. HBCU students are both more likely to borrow funds and likely to borrow more funds than their PWI peers.
The Importance of Financial Aid
The harsh reality is that the need for student loans is unlikely to change any time soon. While discussions of universal education–much like that in Europe or those in California or New York’s SUNY system immediately following WWII–have arisen, major reforms in that direction are unlikely to happen in the near future. So, short of waiting for legislative change, how can HBCU students mitigate the damage of student loans so they can attend the university of their choice?
The best way for HBCU students to overcome the financial stress of attending university is for them to apply for as many financial aid opportunities as possible.
This means, particularly, grants and scholarships. Grants are either privately or government-sponsored funds given to students in financial need. There are no strings attached, and the funds don’t need to be paid back. Scholarships are exactly the same, except they are given to students based on merit–often academic or extracurricular–instead of financial status.
Grants and scholarships can help dramatically reduce the impact of student loans. In some cases, students can get thousands or tens of thousands of dollars in financial aid every year. So, what grants and scholarships are available for HBCU students?
The Coca-Cola First Generation Scholarship is designed for students who are among the first generation of their family to attend higher education. The scholarship awards up to $5,000/yr for 4 years, so long as the student maintains a minimum 3.0 GPA.
The Intel Scholarship is designed for STEM students in their junior or senior year of undergraduate studies, or in a graduate program. The scholarship is only for African American students who maintain a 3.0GPA minimum and provides $5,000 as a single payment.
The UNCF/Koch Scholars Program is a scholarship for U.S.-born African Americans who are committed to attending an approved 4-year university. The scholarship requires a minimum GPA of 2.7 and provides up to $5,000/yr for 4 years.
The Frederick Douglas Bicentennial Scholarship Program is specifically designed for rising high school seniors who are attending an approved HBCU. Students must also be involved in community service, maintain a minimum GPA of 3.5, and have applied for FAFSA/meet financial need requirements. Students awarded this scholarship can earn up to $10,000/yr.
Every student who has financial need should apply for a Federal Pell Grant. This grant is awarded to any student in financial need who is pursuing an undergraduate degree for the first time. Students can earn up to $6,495 as a one-time grant.
This grant is given to students who are attending HBCUs that belong to the IES (Institute for the International Education of Students) Abroad Consortium and who are applying to an IES Abroad program. Students can earn a one-time grant of $2,000.
The FSEOG program is designed for students who exhibit exceptional financial need. Students must complete the FAFSA and fall into the financial earning category eligible for the grant. Students who are most in need can earn grants anywhere from $100-$4,000/yr.
Scholarships are awarded annually and must be used at one of the 1890 Historically Black Land-Grant Universities. Each award provides full tuition, as well as room and board, for the term of the scholarship.
The Future of HBCU Financial Relief
Although things look tough now, the future of financial support for HBCU students is less bleak. In fact, students attending HBCUs have recently seen some relief in the form of student debt forgiveness. Many HBCUs received hefty stimulus packages as a result of the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021. This program injected billions of dollars directly into HBCUs, with some HBCUs using these funds to eliminate outstanding student loan debt altogether.
There is a movement, particularly within HBCU education circles, to shift towards a future that eliminates or drastically reduces student loan debt for African Americans in general, and HBCU students in particular. The future of education in the Black community is a bright one—provided we work together to help lift each other up and overcome present financial barriers so that future generations can grow even further.
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