HBCUs clear students’ unpaid balances to lighten debt burden

Recent months have brought a “flurry of debt cancellation initiatives at HBCUs” as colleges seek to alleviate the financial burden weighing on their graduates. Inside Higher Ed reports that at least 11 HBCUs have announced decisions to clear some or all of students’ outstanding tuition and fee balances, given the intense financial strain many of their students experienced during the pandemic.

“These are students who have had some very difficult decisions to make, and this is a population that over all has been disproportionately impacted,” Lodriguez Murray, senior vice president of public policy and government affairs at the United Negro College Fund, told Inside Higher Ed.

Even without factoring in the pandemic, Black college graduates tend to carry far more student loan debt—an average of $52,000—than their white counterparts, who graduate with an average debt burden of $27,000.

‘One less burden to bear’

HBCU leaders said the debt forgiveness was made possible both by philanthropic support and recent stimulus packages, through which Congress directed at least $5 billion in federal COVID-19 relief funding to HBCUs. They also mentioned the precedent set by billionaire Robert Smith in 2019, when he wiped out $34 million in student loan debt held by Morehouse College graduates.

Related: Big philanthropic investments a bright spot for HBCUs amid financial uncertainty worsened by pandemic >

“You add inspiration like Mr. Smith and others and then you add in opportunity, like Congress has made available, and now you have a perfect storm during what has been one of the most turbulent times for African American students and specifically students at historically Black colleges and universities,” Murray said.

Among the HBCUs that recently shrank or eliminated student balances:

  • Ohio-based Wilberforce University, a private HBCU where 9 in 10 students qualify for Pell Grants, announced that it would provide $375,000 in relief to clear the debts of graduates in the Classes of 2020 and 2021. The action was made possible in part by support from Jack and Jill Inc. and the UNCF.
  • Philander Smith College in Little Rock, Arkansas, deployed a Jack and Jill Inc. grant, as well as alumni and private gifts, to forgive $80,000 owed to the school by graduates of the Classes of 2020 and 2021.
  • Raleigh, North Carolina-based private HBCU Shaw University directed funds from the COVID-19 stimulus package to forgive $116,000 in debt for its graduating students, who owed an unprecedented amount this year having lost jobs during the pandemic.
  • Nearby Saint Augustine’s University similarly announced in late June that federal funds would enable it to clear more than $9 million in debt amassed by around 800 Pell Grant-eligible students during the 2021 spring, summer, and fall terms after applying federal, state, and private aid.
  • Federal relief funds also enabled Delaware State University to cancel up to $730,655 in debt, with an average of $3,276 per student.

HBCU leaders say that while this tuition and fee forgiveness won’t shrink the amount students still owe in federal and personal student loans, it will at least allow them to access their diploma, reduce their overall burden, and increase their chance of building wealth.

“Armed with their credentials, they will be free to pursue a graduate education or take those first steps towards their chosen careers with one less burden to bear,” said Roderick L. Smothers Sr., president of Philander Smith College.

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