Thwarting Student Loan Disaster

Shantella Y. Sherman | 5/31/2012, 4:39 p.m.

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While college completion rates among African Americans continues to increase exponentially - a growth of more than 45 percent for bachelor's degrees between 1990 and 2000 - that growth brings an equally pressing concern over the funding and support for Black college students at both historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) and predominantly black institutions (PBIs).

Organizations and think tanks, including the National Association for Equal Opportunity in Higher Education, insist that the nation's recent economic downturn not only raises the ire over federal funding for Black college students, who disproportionately rely on federal education assistance, but also brings to the foreground the growing number of black students who are unable to find gainful employment after graduation and subsequently default on their student loans.

Lynn Huntley, policy expert and immediate past president of the Southern Education Foundation, said that financial difficulties facing many Black college students is likely to escalate as the nation attempts to overhaul Pell Grant and Federal Student Loan programs. Huntley believes creative restructuring and guidelines may strategically offset decreases in funding.

"Instead of just saying it is important to balance money and even to make some cuts, we have to determine more effective ways to achieve that balance. For instance, we cannot have a full-time undergraduate student on Pell Grants for nine years. Six years may even be determined to be too many years, and it does not mean that we necessarily cut these students off, but there have to be ways to use the money we do have more effectively," Huntley said.

Huntley said that there are some clear racial biases that impact financing and repayment indirectly, including the fact that black students with college degrees earn less than white college students with the same college degrees. The result, Huntley said is that many students coming from low-income households, as black college graduates, actually "remain low-income after earning their college degrees; consequently, there is little pay-off to going into debt to earn the degree."

In the face of inequity, some recent graduates, like Jaunice Washington, suggest after graduation, there should be a limit on how much students have to pay monthly. A 2010 graduate of Southern University in Baton Rouge, La., Washington said she has been unable to find employment in her field - criminal justice - with a bachelor's degree. Returning to school for additional training is not an option with student loans and other bills mounting.

"It's a Catch-22. I need the education and the experience in order to get the job I want in my field, but I need more money to pay for school and more school to enhance my marketability," Washington said.

For now, the 22-year-old is working as an assistant manager for a fast food chain and praying the years and money spent on her criminal justice degree will lead to a career beyond burgers and milkshakes.

Washington's anxiety over career opportunities is only one portion of the competitive equation. Competition for financial resources in education is further complicated by the popularity of short-term certificates from for-profit schools among African Americans, like Everett, Kaplan, and Capella. Programs generally range from six months to two years, and are appealing to minorities because of the flexibility, the promised direct link to employment after graduation and the flexibility of classes.