HBCUs experimenting to reduce students’ debt burden

Historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) have faced financial challenges for years, limiting their ability to provide students with substantial scholarships—and forcing many HBCU students to rely heavily on loans. According to the United Negro College fund, one-fourth of HBCU students borrow $40,000 or more to attend college. Recognizing that students who attend HBCUs also are more likely to struggle to repay loans, several of these institutions are finding ways to reduce their students’ debt burden, even as the colleges deal with financial hurdles of their own.

“You’re talking about under-resourced institutions that serve under-resourced people,” Dillard President Walter M. Kimbrough told The Washington Post. “A lot of times people are just trying to figure out how do we keep functioning as an institution and help students get the ­resources that they need.”

From small emergency grants to sweeping institutional changes

The Post recently highlighted several HBCU initiatives that seek to reduce borrowing and increase students’ chance of completion—experiments “as simple as providing a few hundred dollars” and as radical as “chang[ing] the way the school operates.”

Paul Quinn College in Dallas, Texas, is one HBCU that has made substantial changes to ensure students can afford the cost of attendance. Facing potential bankruptcy, the college decided to completely rethink its model, slashing tuition by 40 percent and ending its football program. In 2013, Paul Quinn became the first urban institution to implement a work-college model. The program requires each student to work, both on campus and in the community. Students keep some of what they earn, and the rest is used toward the cost of attendance. Encouraged by the program’s success, the college is opening a second campus and forging corporate partnerships.

Other institutions, like Dillard University in New Orleans, are focused on addressing the small financial emergencies that can make it difficult for students to stay on track. Even as it was still rebuilding facilities damaged in Hurricane Katrina, Dillard built up a philanthropically supported fund, called Student Aid for Financial Emergencies (SAFE) to provide grants for students struggling with the cost of attendance.

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Meanwhile, other institutions, like Howard University in Washington, D.C., are focused on tuition assistance and financial incentives that help students complete their degree faster, at lower cost. Howard allows qualifying students to take up to six summer credits for free and offers a tuition refund for students who earn a degree in four years or less. “We’re starting to see a lot more donations, a lot more interest because of these innovations,” Howard President Wayne A.I. Frederick told the Post. “People are seeing the results and paying attention.”

Initiatives like these are vital to HBCUs’ existence and success, experts say. “You have a unique population of students, and you also have institutions that can’t pull from financial resources to support them like other types of schools,” Krystal L. Williams, assistant professor of higher education at the University of Alabama, told the Post. “There has been historic and unequal consideration for funding by corporations and foundations.”

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