Slipping Through the Cracks.

by tanakwho, via Creative Commons.

Last week, Arne Duncan met with leaders and faculty from HBCUs to touted the financial support the White House had thrown behind black colleges, but also to press them to improve their graduation rates, which lag behind those of non-HBCUs (a disparity that is particularly pronounced among men). My blogmate Shani, a Howard grad, bristled a bit at Duncan’s criticism, saying that the their populations come from more economically disadvantaged backgrounds, and the schools themselves have less money to spend on financial aid. “HBCUs can’t afford robust aid packages,” she tweeted.  “And black students (even middle class ones) often don’t have family wealth/equity to draw from.  I saw more than a few students drop out of Howard because they couldn’t afford to stay and the school couldn’t afford to keep them. It often had nothing to do with academic success. ”

This is a good point, and it’s a problem that HBCUs probably can only do so much to ameliorate (though you could  probably make the argument that higher graduation rates would produce a larger pool of  alumni who would be in position to give money back to their  respective alma maters). But it also touches on a subtle but significant obstacle to improving attrition rates at HBCUs that can be fixed: their notorious  financial aid staffs. Whenever I talk to friends who went to HBCUs  about their college experiences, they lament that their financial aid packages often remained in some kind of administrative purgatory for weeks or months —- scholarships or grants or loan checks would be misplaced or not applied —- all while being warned that they risked being dropped from their classes and kicked out of their dorms if their financial situations remained unresolved. The staff members, in these stories, are always short and dismissive and unhelpful — sometimes even openly hostile — and this is all taken as a given. Even years removed from all this, my friends tell these stories with anger in their voices. (The word “corrupt” gets thrown a lot in these recollections, but I’m not sure how much of that is hyperbole, or if they have some firsthand knowledge of other Morris Brown-type situations.) And these are people who are unabashedly proud of their schools and disinclined to speak ill of them.*

The most economically marginalized students are less equipped to navigate these minefields, to know which questions need asking and to whom, or to have relatives or mentors who have been there before and who can intercede on their behalf, to say nothing of the lack of social momentum to push them through. It’s hard to say how many students don’t finish college because of this, but there’s no reason why colleges can’t be more affirmative in trying get rid of these kinds of unnecessary roadblocks to graduation.

*I was teasing a friend about some shenanigans at Penn, where she received her J.D. and her Masters. “How do you feel about this, as a Quaker?” Her response: “Okay, first: I’m not a Quaker. I’m a Rattler…”



Gene "G.D." Demby is the founder and editor of PostBourgie. In his day job, he blogs and reports on race and ethnicity for NPR's Code Switch team.
  • ZiaTroyano

    I didn’t go to an HBCU, so I can’t offer a student perspective. But I manage a state grant program, where I’m in daily contact with financial aid offices at non-HBCU colleges. Their field is notoriously understaffed, underpaid, and overworked. The turnover rate is pretty high. The only exception I know to that are “richer” schools. I would assume the situation is the same, if not worse, at HBCU colleges that are working with less money.

  • While reading the first few sentences my mind went straight to, “what are the alumni doing?” While I know that everyone that graduates isn’t rich or have all the connections, they still need to give back to their alma maters. Hell I give back to my elementary school, all the way through the college. More foundations and grants need to be established so that more students can have the opportunity to attend these wonderful institutions.

    Peace, Love and Chocolate

  • Sheesh, this post makes me nervous. My boyfriend just chose to get his masters at an HBCU and they have yet to give him his aid package (besides the 1/2 scholarship they’re offering). Part of our morning ritual now is calling every number we can get our hands on in the financial aid office and trying to speak to someone live. They haven’t been rude yet, but they certainly aren’t helpful…they keep sending him to various voicemails. He’s thinking about looking into private loans cause school starts in August and these folks still won’t be straightforward about his federal loan package.

    It’s extremely frustrating, and something we didn’t anticipate at all as both of us went to predominantly white undergrad institutions. The PWI’s that he was accepted to for grad school sent him their aid offers immediately.

    I could see how an 18-year-old dealing with this type of bureaucrat run-around for the first time could be discouraged. Hell, I’m a seasoned school admin-stalker and I’m pretty worn out.

  • acn

    I am on the fence about this issue. I graduated from an HBCU and I know quite a few people who did not graduate at my school. They usually transfer out to “more affordable” home schools. I got to senior year and needed financial help for the first time, contacted the aid office and they pretty much told me they couldn’t help me in anyway. The lady was nonchalant. Then I found out much later about students receiving stipends and scholarships from the “buddy system” I was so angry because that money given to students in campus positions could be pooled to help a student in need of financial support. I just kept thinking, “why would anyone want to give back to a school that does not treat their students right?” that is key to alumni giving. even if the aid office was unable to offer impressive packages, if they treated those needy students right, then maybe they wouldn’t graduate with such a bad impression of their alma mater. I will give back, but it will definitely take time for me to get over the administrative hurdles that almost prevented me from receiving my degree. But I’m sure their shouldn’t have a hard time receiving funding from those who they did help out…

  • Erin

    I’m also a FAMU alumni, and although I was very fortunate to have a parent with the financial wherewithal to pay the majority of my undergraduate tuition, the few interactions I had with the Financial Aid office were exactly as you described. In spite of the administration problems that I encountered while there, I still love my alma mater, and your post reminded me how important it is for me to give back. Thanks for that.