A growing number of policy-makers, higher education officials and others are lamenting lackluster college completion rates and soaring student loan debt loads among college students in the United States. The problem is particularly pronounced among Black students.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the research arm of the U.S. Department of Education, the six-year college graduation rate among Black students stands at 42 percent, compared to 60 percent for Whites, 48 percent for Hispanics and 67 percent for Asian/Pacific Islander students. That distribution holds up whether the students attended public of private not-for-profit institutions.

Black students are not only graduating less, but they are borrowing more money to get through college, according to a recent College Board report titled Who Borrows the Most? Bachelor’s Degree Recipients with High Levels of Student Debt. That report found that Black bachelor’s degree students had cumulative total debts of $30,500 or more at a rate of 27 percent, compared to 16 percent for White students, 14 percent for Hispanic students, and 9 percent for Asian students.

The reason, says Julianne Malveaux, an economist, commentator and president of Bennett College for Women in Greensboro, N.C., stems from the socioeconomic status of many Black families. Complicating things further, she said, is the fact that family members sometimes expect the college students in their family to use their student loans for paying bills or various emergencies.

“Probably half of the things students come to see me about have to do with money,” Malveaux said in a recent phone interview with the AFRO.
Malveaux noted the average Black family has an income of $40,000 or less – tuition, room and board at Bennett is $24,000. “Obviously, there has to be some outside resources for students to matriculate,” Malveaux said.

Lack of money is why it’s important to be proactive, says Nicki Washington, a Howard University computer science instructor, author of Prepped for Success: What Every Parent Should Know About the College Application Process.
Among other things, Washington recommends that students:

* Start thinking about applying for scholarships as early as freshman year in high school. “A lot of parents tend to tell me you can’t even apply until you’re a senior. But that’s too late to think of these things,” Washington said, explaining that it’s important to know what winning a particular scholarship requires, such as extracurricular activities and a competitive GPA.

* Though they may not always be readily available, try to take Advanced Placement courses in high school instead of going the easy route. The courses better prepare students for the rigors of college and offer the opportunity to get college credit while in high school, thereby saving money on their college education. The courses help students get admitted to college and win scholarships, Washington says. “What they don’t realize is that these universities’ scholarship committees … have such a large pool of applicants that they have to find those small things that help a student stand out.”

* Create an account on FastWeb, a website that enables students to search for scholarships, financial aid and student loans for which they are eligible. Though many of the scholarships may be for modest amounts, others can be for tens of thousands of dollars.

* Search for work-study options on campus, or opportunities to work within the college department of the student’s major. At the same time, be cautious about the psychological effect of off-campus opportunities in your field of study, especially those that pay well, because it could lead a student to think: “I already have the career. Why do I need the degree?” Students who drop out of college because they are enjoying a degree of pre-graduation career success, Washington said, may lose their job and find out the hard way that other companies won’t hire them without a degree.


Jamaal Abdul-Alim

Special to the AFRO