While we as a nation deal with the crisis afforded by student loan debt, there is yet another crisis looming, of equal importance, and that is, the fact that historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) are struggling to stay afloat these days largely due to changes made in how Parent PLUS loans and PELL grants are disbursed.
According to an article which appeared in “Essence” Magazine, HBCUs lost 14,000 students in 2013, largely due to these changes. (http://www.essence.com/2013/07/22/there-war-hbcus/) Parents with shaky credit are no longer able to get the Parent PLUS loans that were once more easily obtained, and the result is, many African-American students are having to leave school because they cannot afford it, and many more African-American students are not able to enter HBCUs to which they have been granted admission because they cannot afford it.
While African-Americans have frequently been accused of “whining” in this nation, the fact of the matter is that they have continually beat up against barriers to their advancement. In the “Essence” article cited above, the mother of a student who wants to attend Howard University has battled homelessness and other hardships but has yet pushed to get to make it possible for her daughter to attend college. Without a Parent PLUS loan (she was turned down), it is doubtful that her daughter will be able to attend the college of her choice.
Some would argue that it’s no big deal; that the young woman should merely choose a college which her mother can more afford, apply, get in and be done with it. Yet that argument misses the important role HBCUs have played in the lives of countless African-Americans.
We all know how colleges have been wont to admit African-Americans in our nation. Many HBCUs were established in order to accommodate black students who would not have been admitted to white schools, no matter their grades or ability to pay. The United Church of Christ, for example, established 500 land grant colleges in the 19th century for black students; of these, six remain: Fisk, Toogaloo, Dillard, Huston-Tillotson, Lemoyne-Owen, and Talladega.
These colleges provided not only a stellar education for their students, but also a sense of community, affirmation and acceptance which the students rarely, if ever, received in their daily lives as American citizens. As these students graduated, they did so with a renewed sense of themselves and their talents, and with a belief that they had worth and something of extreme importance to offer to this country and to the world.
Being in an environment where they were not the “minority,” but were, rather, just part of a large group of people with similar goals was worth more than anyone could imagine. They didn’t compare themselves to white people; they had teachers who cared about them as individuals and went the extra mile to make sure they succeeded. College was an extension of home, yet a release from home at the same time; parents were gently nudged to let go of their children and let the college finish the work the parents had begun. It would be OK, was the message given. Their “babies” would be taken care of, even as they were expected to succeed and make the most of the opportunity they were being given.
The result of an HBCU education is often stark. My own daughter attended an all-white, private high school, but opted to attend Spelman College in Atlanta. She left Columbus a little shy and reserved, but graduated from Spelman confident and self-assured. She was, literally, a changed person, a well-adjusted young woman who had found herself in an environment where she was encouraged to do so.
If these colleges slip away because of bureaucratic red tape, making it difficult, if not impossible, for students like my daughter to attend, the result will be devastating to a group of people who have been fighting against discrimination from the beginning of our existence here. Students ought not be penalized because of the financial difficulties of their parents. African-American children deserve the same rights as white students. HBCUs have given them a venue to exercise that right, and have produced some amazing graduates.
Alumni of HBCUs need to take up the banner and make more donations. Endowments of HBCUs are critically low, and far below the endowments of major white universities. Nettie Hailes, a civil rights activist, said to a group of HBCU students who gathered in Washington, D.C. recently for the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington that “you owe something for the space you occupy on planet earth.” Those who have gotten ahead because of the opportunities afforded them in HBCUs can’t forget what a gift those colleges were to them.
Sometimes, those who fight for justice get tired and want to stop, but situations like this make it clear that the fight for justice can never stop; the struggle continues, no matter what. When it comes to saving HBCUs, the struggle should be front, center …and made obvious to everyone. The fact that HBCUs lost 14,000 students this year … with the possibility of even more having to drop out because of their need for financial aid but hampered because of a resistant federal government – is unconscionable. Our HBCUs are a national treasure which have produced …national treasures, who have been able to receive a quality education unencumbered by racism. That experience is worth its weight in gold.
Ella Baker, civil rights activist, said, “We who believe in freedom …cannot rest until it comes.” It hasn’t come yet, Ella, not yet.
A candid observation …