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Staying in School: The Financial Challenges HBCU Students Face

While HBCUs provide greater access for Black students, getting in is only half the battle.

HBCUs have made higher education more accessible for Black students, but there is still a financial aspect to address.

These institutions have a 50 percent access rate which represents the percentage of students who come from the bottom 40% ($46,000 and below in parental household earnings) of the income distribution, according to a UNCF study, which exemplifies the difficulty to fund an education.

This access rate for HBCUs is double that of all institutions nationwide and five times that of Ivy Plus institutions meaning students from lower-income families are represented greatly at HBCUs.

These students depend on scholarships, grants and financial aid packages. And the lack thereof, can be the ultimate roadblock in some students’ path to graduation.

Asia Brown’s journey began at Spelman College, the #1 HBCU and her dream school, located in Atlanta, Georgia. With no financial aid awards, she started her first semester hoping she would receive more scholarships along the way, but that dream ended when her mother needed heart surgery. Brown transferred to Prairie View Agricultural and Mechanical University as an in-state student where tuition and fees were $20,000 less.

“When you have a goal that you set for so long, and it’s at the tip of your fingers but gets pulled away, it’s sad. But I took it as that’s not what God had in store for me,”  Brown said.

Many HBCU students across the nation have similar experiences where paying for college seems almost impossible.

“I hate that we go through this because HBCUs are amazing, and it’s an experience every Black kid should have. But they make it so hard to stay there,” said Alexus Vaughn, an alumna of Xavier University of Louisiana..

Vaughn spent every day of her undergraduate career looking for ways to fund her education. She made the financial aid office her second home, hoping she would stand out among 2,400 undergraduate students at XULA where 87% apply for need-based financial aid.

To complete a bachelor’s degree, HBCU students borrow on average $26,000 in federal loans compared to $14,000 for non-HBCU students, according to the National Postsecondary Student Aid Study. And about 92% of all student debt are federal loans.

Students strive to be debt free post-graduation and scholarships serve as another gateway resource for students, but their competitive requirements lower its accessibility.

Vaughn maintained a 4.0 GPA after her freshman year but didn’t receive any merit-based scholarships through the institution.

Retention as a key role in student success

While Brown and Vaughn have different stories, at the center is the importance of retention through the advancement of financial resources.

“It’s cost prohibitive for students overall to find themselves in school beyond 5 or 6 years,” said Robert Muhammad, Director of Financial Aid at Howard University. “The easier it is for us to work on the front end, the easier it is for us to engage students to get them to be enrolled and get them the support they need.”

Howard University ranks as the #2 HBCU, and accumulated over 29,000 applications for the class of 2025 with a 35% acceptance rate, the university’s admission website says, attesting to the competitiveness of HBCUs.

The university offers a plethora of financial opportunities, including its Graduation Retention Access to Continued Excellence (GRACE) grant, catering to its goal to enhance academic excellence as outlined in the university’s 2019-2024 strategic plan.

Howard created an office of Undergraduate Study devoted to getting students across the finish line with enhanced, digital advising practices.

Similarly, XULA’s strategy is to enhance the student advising and mentoring process, dedicate more resources targeted to student support programming and develop more opportunities for student scholarship research.

Chasing financial resources while balancing studies is tough, explained Vaughn. “I got so stressed thinking about having to pay for school that it took a toll on me and my schooling.” She continued, “I got to a point where if it was meant for me to be [at XULA], that I was just going to have to give it to God.”

Vaughn leaned on her reason why: To be on a HBCU campus where it produces the most Black doctors, and the experience is incomparable.

“I did go through a lot but it was worth it. You know something is worth it, if I graduated.”

Comparatively, Brown had a positive outlook. “Transitioning to PVAMU wasn’t a part of my plan and I didn’t want to, but it was one of the best decisions as well,” Brown said.” Yes, Spelman was a goal of mine and has been my goal for a while, but I wouldn’t be the woman I am today without going there.”

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