The Student-Debt Crisis Hits Hardest at Historically Black Colleges

Long a path to financial security, traditionally African-American schools are now producing graduates who struggle with disproportionately high debt

Historically black colleges and universities helped lift generations of African-Americans to economic security. Now, attendance has become a financial drag on many of their young graduates, members of a new generation hit particularly hard by the student-debt crisis.

Students of these institutions, known as HBCUs, are leaving with disproportionately high loans compared with their peers at other schools, a Wall Street Journal analysis of Education Department data found, and are less likely to repay those loans than they were a decade ago.

Among key findings of the Journal’s examination of 2017 data, the latest available:

  • HBCU alumni have a median federal-debt load of about $29,000 at graduation—32% above graduates of other public and nonprofit four-year schools.
  • The majority of HBCU grads haven’t paid down even $1 of their original loan balance in the first few years out of school.
  • America’s 82 four-year HBCUs make up 5% of four-year institutions, but more than 50% of the 100 schools with the lowest three-year student-loan repayment rates.

Though HBCUs typically cost less than other public and nonprofit four-year schools, these colleges have long trailed those peers on measures of debt and repayment. Now they are trailing by far greater margins.

Many HBCUs see a mandate in giving opportunity to disadvantaged youth, who often start out with fewer financial resources and a diminished ability to pay.

At Stillman College in Tuscaloosa, Ala., the board until recently included alumni from rural Alabama working as lawyers, doctors and ministers, said its president, Cynthia Warrick. “They’ve told me that no one else would take them but Stillman. I think we have a responsibility to still be that place.”

Graduates of four-year for-profit colleges, which weren’t part of the Journal’s comparisons, have similar overall repayment rates and median debt loads to HBCU alumni, an analysis of federal data shows.

The HBCU debt gap has widened partly because of simple math. Tuition increases have outstripped inflation across America.

  • Black families have the least wealth of the largest U.S. racial groups, Federal Reserve data show.
  • Parents of black college students have lower incomes and are less likely to own homes than those from other racial groups, Education Department data show.

So in coping with tuition increases, black students have fewer resources to draw on than many Americans. Borrowing proportionally more has been the solution for many black students and families.

.. Blacks typically earn less than whites after college, so they have fewer resources to repay. Black college graduates between ages 21 and 24 earned nearly 17% less per hour, on average, than white graduates of the same age range in 2018, according to an analysis of census data by the Economic Policy Institute, a left-leaning think tank.

.. Many HBCUs opened after the Civil War and in the first half of the 20th century when public and private universities often denied admission to African-American students. The schools often started out severely behind their peers financially. Many never caught up, despite government efforts that the schools say have been insufficient.

Why the Wealth Gap Hits Families the Hardest

Income inequality describes the gap between a six-figure salary and minimum wage. But the more alarming gap occurs in wealth — a household’s total assets minus debts.

.. According to our research, wealth inequality is much worse among families with children, and the gap has widened greatly over the past two decades

.. The demographer Samuel Preston warned in 1984 that the United States had made “a set of private and public choices that have dramatically altered the age profile of well-being,” by devoting resources toward improving conditions for the elderly while neglecting to do the same for families with children.

.. Unlike income, which can change quickly because of a booming economy or a rise in the minimum wage, changes in wealth usually happen slowly.

.. Parental wealth is also a critical determinant of where children live and the quality of the schools they attend. It can affect the kind of job they have, if and when they marry, and whether they own their homes.