Good News/Bad News: Percentage Of HBCU Graduates With Debt Drops But Debt Loads Increase


Debt is the slavery of the free. – Publilius Syrus

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A follow up to our internal study two years ago on HBCU student loan debt shows a “good news, bad news” situation for those graduating from HBCUs hallowed grounds. Slightly less are graduating with debt than two years ago, but those who are graduating with debt can expect those debt loads to be heavier. A troubling sign as wages stubbornly refuse to rise despite an arguably healthier overall economy in terms of employment. I say arguably because African America still remains the only group in this country experiencing double digit unemployment and largely dependent on employment from non-HBCU owned businesses. Add to the fact African American households earn 35 percent less than the national average and 50 percent less than Asian American households who have the highest household income in the nation; there will be a good deal of continued penny-pinching ahead for HBCU graduates. Although, one has to wonder at this point if we are not squeezing blood from a turnip as the old saying goes.

HBCUs served 99 percent of the African American population obtaining higher education prior to desegregation while today that number has dwindled to the neighborhood of 10 percent. This steady but precipitous decline over the past 60 years has had long-term impacts on HBCU endowments not least among them the probability of producing high quality donors and large alumni populations. The latter being integral since only an average 13 percent of America’s alumni donate. Wealth or lack thereof is also playing a role for African American families and the rising HBCU student loan debt. African American families have recovered mildly since the recession, but the median wealth gap between European/Asian and African American families is well over 20:1 as of 2012. Institutional wealth is also part of the spider web of student loan debt. The institutional wealth gap as a result of desegregation is even scarier with the top 50 endowments (all PWI/HWCUs) having a combined $330 billion versus 100 plus HBCUs with approximately $2-3 billion. All of these factors contribute to an ongoing burden by families, HBCUs, and HBCU support organizations to try and reduce student loan debt for HBCU graduates.

The results were paired against America’s 50 largest universities by endowment which surprisingly varied by geography, public and private status, and school size eerily similar to that of HBCUs. The Project on Student Debt reports in 2013 that 69 percent of all college graduates have student loan debt and the average debt of that graduate is $28 400. Both numbers are up from two years ago, when the figures were 66 percent and $26 600, respectively. The latter puts average debt rising almost 7 percent in the past two years.

The number in parentheses shows the comparative results from the universities of the 50 largest endowments:

Median debt of HBCU Graduate – $30 344 ($22 020)

Proportion of HBCU Graduates with debt – 88% (45%)

Nonfederal debt, % of total debt of graduates – 6% (23%)

Pell Grant Recipients – 69% (17%)

The statistics show that HBCU students are still 28 percent more likely to graduate with debt than the national average, a figure that was at 35 percent two years ago. A sign that the nation is catching up to the HBCU indebted way of life. HBCU graduates are 96 percent more likely to graduate with debt than someone from a school with a top 50 endowment, which is higher than the 93 percent two years ago. Unfortunately, there is no way to break out the African American student loan debt data of those attending those HWCUs which would help control for family resources playing an integral part in the difference. Given top 50 endowments ability to provide more low-income based aid; it is a safe assumption that the student loan debt is potentially lower for African Americans at HWCUs both in terms of percentage of those graduating with debt and debt loads. Over the past two years, median debt for HBCU graduates has risen 5.4 percent in comparison to top 50 endowment schools of only 1.4 percent. Both groups though are below the aforementioned national average over the same time period.

The most telling sign of just how vital endowments impact student loan debt appears in the median cost of attendance for HBCUs versus top 50 endowment institutions. Top 50 endowment institutions cost almost three times as much or 177 percent more than HBCUs in terms of median total cost of attendance. Despite this HBCU graduates are still twice as likely to finish with debt and with more of it is a disturbing reality of just how big the institutional wealth gap is. HBCU graduates are finishing with almost 38 percent more student loan debt burdens than their top 50 endowment institution counterparts. A problem that will have very long term systemic wealth building implications if not attacked ferociously. Currently, the median net worth or wealth for African Americans is the lowest among all groups in this country at $11 000. In comparison, Asian and European American median net worth is $91 440 and $134 008, respectively.

As I said two years ago, we could spend years playing the blame game of why this situation is as it is. Unfortunately, African America does not have that kind of time. Two years later, it seems even harder to believe that the HBCU community has any more grapple or workable solution on this problem than before. There seems to be a foregone conclusion that student loan debt is just a part of life and as is the case with most things in this nation when America catches a cold, then African America catches pneumonia. The question becomes just how much debt and how fast it accumulates will ultimately determine the sustainability factor for how long-term benefits will be reaped by graduates, their families and communities. Unfortunately, HBCUs are caught between a rock and hard place in needing to desperately raise tuition to generate more revenue because of weak endowments, but doing so increases an already over-sized burden on their graduates long-term and making it even less likely they will become the donors that the institutions desperately need. It has become a vicious cycle and with so much of African America and America invested in the demise of HBCUs that it seems only a miracle will keep us from perishing.

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