Despite poor outcomes for many African Americans in higher education, including more debt when they graduate, HBCUs like Fisk University turn out well-educated graduates with less debt than other four-year colleges.

NASHVILLE, TN – Higher education can be a big challenge to low income students because it’s frightfully expensive to get a college degree even with loans and grants. While the number of African Americans enrolled in college has tripled since 1963, half of African Americans who entered college in 2011 didn’t graduate. A lot of it had to do with money.

Federal Pell grants provided financial aid to over nine million students in 2011- 2012, including 62 percent of all African American college students. But Pell grants have not kept pace with increasing tuition costs. And Pell grants don’t help black students and other minorities as much as they could.

More than half African American college students work at least one job while attending college. If they are independent they are more likely to have a zero Expected Family Contribution on their Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) form and would qualify for the highest level of federal aid. But there is a catch. If they are workers first with a family to support or care for, and students second, many enroll part time and get less aid.

These days even a full class load and a maximum Pell grant is not enough to get a college education without falling into debt. According to a 2014 Urban League Study, Pell grants once financed about 75 percent of the cost of a public four-year college education but now covers just 31 percent of a student’s cost of attendance. “The purchasing power of the Pell grant must be strengthened so that it continues to serve as a key resource to help needy students to access higher education,” concludes the report.

In fact, while 62 percent of African American students receive some Pell support, only 14 percent of independent African Americans receive the maximum Pell grant award. Dependent black students get more federal and more state aid. When you are on your own higher education support is less generous.

Civil rights advocates and educators want to eliminate these inequities when the Higher Education Act (HEA) comes up for renewal.

“Post-secondary students today, especially those from marginalized communities, are facing serious challenges that impede their ability to succeed, challenges that their institutions and Congress can take steps to address,” said Nicole Dooley, Policy Counsel with NAACP Legal Defense & Education Fund.

According to a report by the American Council on Education, African American women are nearly two thirds of all black college students. Black male freshman are the most likely among any demographic group to drop out after their first year. Black students who graduated owed about $5,000 more compared with other students.

About one third of black graduates had more than $40,000 in debt, while only 18% of all college students owed that much. Black graduates under 35 had lower salaries than other graduates and their unemployment rate was two-thirds higher.

Despite these poor outcomes for black college students, there are plenty of barriers to success in higher education and it turns out that many different groups have the same ones. Two common denominators are low-income and a poor k-12 education.

Take Nellie, a young Native American woman who grew up in a tribal community in NE Oklahoma. She is a member of the Muscogee Nation and her barriers to higher education started long before she became a senior in high school.

“Her school is less likely to have access to equitable funding, facilities, college preparation courses, educated or professional development programs. She is more likely to be subjected to discipline than her peers,” said Adrianne Elliott, a legislative analyst with the National Indian Education Association.

Nellie was the first in her family to attend college. Neither her high school nor her family could help her apply or fill out the FAFSA student loan form. She navigated getting into college all on her own. She matriculated to the College of the Muscogee Nation in Okmulgee, Oklahoma and relied on financial aid to stay in school.

“However, she soon realized her high school classes did not prepare her for the current work load and she is required to take a series of remedial classes which are not covered by financial aid,” said Elliott.

Nellie gets a two-year degree with a certificate in the Muscogee language, takes a job teaching it and focuses on her family. “When she returns to school at the University of Oklahoma she is juggling a small child and a busy life. Nellie’s story is not unique in native communities and for students like her the civil rights principles are not vague ideas. They are key pillars to support pathways to post-secondary success,” Elliott said.

“Seventy-five percent of Latino students are first generation and nearly half are independent or caregiver students. Forty percent work 20 hours or more per week and nearly half have family college contributions of zero,” said Stephanie Roman, Senior Policy Analyst with UnidosUS.

Latinos, like African Americans, Native Americans, and Asian refugees face higher tuition costs and inequalities that are widening the racial wealth gap.

“Our communities have less familial wealth and lower median incomes to contribute towards rising higher education costs. And we know that taking out loans has serious implications for the financial security of Latino students and their families. All of these issues taken together need to be addressed in a comprehensive way through the Higher Education Act,” Roman said.

Ethnic Media Services held a briefing last week by education experts from five civil rights groups. They discussed the upcoming reauthorization of the HEA which was last updated in 2008. A lot has changed in the last eleven years.

Congress could vote on a new version of the HEA before the 2020 Election. Neither President Trump nor Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos are in the vanguard creating more opportunity for disadvantaged and minority populations to go to college. For example, Dreamers are ineligible to receive federal student aid under the HEA. The coalition hopes a new HEA will allow them to get it just as they hope the dreamers will get citizenship. Both outcomes are facing political fights in Washington.

HBCUs are one bright spot in the big picture. They continue to award degrees to better educated African Americans while reducing the financial burden on their students.