It is easy to be generous with other people’s money. — Latin proverb
By William A. Foster, IV
The numbers do not lie. The African American median net worth is $2,170. European and Asian America’s median net worth is approximately $100,000 as reported by the Economic Policy Institute and Pew Research, respectively. The unemployment rate for African America is 14 percent while European and Asian America’s unemployment rates are 6.9 and 6.6 percent respectively. At Prairie View A&M University 69 percent of their students are graduating with debt while Texas A&M University, its most prominent HWCU competitor, is graduating only 46 percent of its students with debt. Yet, the leadership at Prairie View seems to believe that it can operate largely and should chase the same objectives that its competitor has. In an article recently written by Nelson Bowman, Prairie View A&M University’s Executive Director of Development, admits that 95 percent of the student body is financial aid dependent. That most of financial aid for African Americans ends up as some form of student loan debt seems to be missed on the university’s leadership.
I grew up at Prairie View A&M University. My father’s family legacy runs deep with purple and gold. Many of the important first in my life even happen on that campus. I earned my master’s there in community development so there is a strong emotional investment to see this school improve in every way possible. That being said it can not do so on the back of its students because it can not find creative ways to raise funds for projects. Ultimately, if a college or university can not raise the money from alumni, outside sources, and endowment returns then it just simply does not need to engage the project. Asking students who are going to graduate playing catch up in terms of wealth and income or asking HBCU faculty and staff who are already underpaid and overworked in comparison to their peers is simply an apathetic way to show improvement without actually having to put much thought into actual achieving any.
It was during my time in graduate school that the current administration proposed building a $50 million athletic complex (it only has a $10.8 million research budget) as well as proposed to implement a $10 per credit hour fee onto student to help build the athletic department’s scholarships and improve their facilities. Some would argue a guise to help the university raise money for its proposed $50 million proposed athletic complex for which it could not use any state funds it had received to do so. Either way students were asked to bear the burden essentially by adding to the amount they already would need to borrow in student loans. Even more recent I had lunch with my cousin, an engineering major at Prairie View A&M University, who told me of a new $10 fee that was being added. He said it was being used to build the endowment as he understood it and provide a permanent endowed scholarship. Wait, what? You are asking students to borrow more money to fund a scholarship that they themselves actually need. A scholarships purpose is to decrease student debt but instead they are increasing their student debt. I guess standing outside in the rain when you have a house will keep you dry. There was something sad, unimaginative, comical, and paradoxical in all of it. Students of course approved the athletic and scholarship fee believing they were doing something to help their school. Somehow this is being sold to students as “giving” and not adding to their debt which will already have them at a wealth disadvantage upon graduation. A disadvantage they have to try and close with an income gap that currently has African Americans earning $0.65 for every $1.00 European Americans earn, wealth almost 50 times less than European and Asian Americans, and unemployment twice as high as their counterparts.
Just how much is this $150 athletic fee and $10 scholarship fee costing students? Federal statistics show that only approximately 40 percent of African Americans will graduate from undergraduate within six years. If one considers that a majority of Prairie View A&M University students will take six years to graduate it means they paid $960 over their six year academic career. What happens if they had been able to put that $960 into a Roth IRA or other investment account and just bought a standard S&P 500 Index? Over the next forty years at the historical average return of 12 percent that $960 would be worth $89 328.93 at retirement. What else is that $960 equal?
- It would be equivalent to 5 months worth of savings at the current African American monthly savings rate. Something the majority of African American families did not have in the recent financial crisis.
- As a percentage of the African American median net worth it is 44.2 percent.
- Equal to 36 percent of the monthly median income for African Americans
The goal HBCUs should be working toward is decreasing their student debt burdens. By doing this it allows students to reach a point of wealth faster that they can be contributing alumni without sacrificing the financial health of their families. A complicated matter for African Americans who earn less and have higher student loan debt burdens while starting off with a wealth gap. Having less student loan debt also allows for the pursuit of home ownership faster and more importantly the ability to save money for the creation of businesses. Those businesses then can generate the kind of wealth that could provide seven and eight figure donations, employment faster for graduating students, and garner political influence for the HBCU. The logic that somehow burdening the students of today who will be the parents of tomorrow’s HBCU student makes little to no sense. It in fact endangers the possibility that the HBCU student of today and the parent of tomorrow will be forced to send their child elsewhere. Especially, if they are still paying off debt and must send their child to the school offering the most non-debt financial aid. Prairie View A&M University prides itself on saying it produces productive people. It must move beyond productive and do all it can so that it can produce powerful people. Ignoring the reality of its core demographic in its strategic planning to achieve that goal and mimicking HWCU behavior is something that far too many HBCUs are guilty of and it will be at the peril of our future if such behavior continues.
EDITOR’S CORRECTION: The fees are by semester. Therefore the $960 is actually $1 920 over six years. The cost to students is approximately $180 000.