Despite Financial Challenges, HBCUs Fight To Remain A Bargain

Historically black colleges and universities remain a gateway to higher education for millions of students. But how are the institutions and their students weathering difficult financial challenges?

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. It's the college admissions season. So this spring, we're joining our colleagues at Morning Edition to talk about the challenge of paying for higher education. And we're not just talking about the problem, though, we're trying to offer practical advice to get around that money maze. Today we want to focus on historically black colleges and universities - HBCUs.

For generations, these institutions have opened the door to higher education for millions of African-American students. In recent years, they have also provided an affordable and accessible education for students of other backgrounds. These days, though, many HBCUs are facing enormous financial challenges along with the students they serve. We wanted to hear more about that, so we've called upon Marybeth Gasman. She's a professor at the University of Pennsylvania's Graduate School of Education where she studies historically black schools. Professor Gasman, thanks so much for joining us once again.

MARYBETH GASMAN: Thank you. It's a pleasure to be here.

MARTIN: Also joining us for additional perspective, David Wilson, president of Morgan State University. That's an historically black public university in Baltimore. President Wilson, thank you so much for joining us once again.

DAVID WILSON: It's a pleasure being here as well.

MARTIN: Professor Gasman, I'm going to start with you 'cause we hear a lot about how the cost of college has skyrocketed in recent years. Is the same thing true for the HBCUs? Are they still affordable?

GASMAN: HBCUs are very affordable. In fact, their tuition is about 50 percent of majority institutions. So it costs 50 percent less to attend an HBCU. They're incredibly affordable. Even the private colleges are half as much as majority private institutions in terms of their tuition. So HBCUs, in fact, are a bargain compared to other institutions.

MARTIN: President Wilson, despite that, though, we still understand that a lot of the students who come to these schools have financial challenges of their own. Can you talk a little bit about that?

WILSON: Oh, absolutely, and I totally agree with Professor Gasman that HBCUs are still a great bargain today. And in terms of the tuition, here at Morgan, for example, a full year is less $5,000 a year. But what we see at Morgan is quite similar to what we see across the HBCU spectrum. About 90 percent of our students are on financial aid, and so even though we have absolutely tried to keep tuition at a very, very affordable level, we still see that our students struggle a bit in coming up with, in this case, you know, $5,000 a year in tuition. Now that's not the total cost of attendance, but our students are still struggling.

MARTIN: You know, you used to hear it commonly said of people who work their way through school. I was not able to do that. I mean, even if I worked, you know, constantly. By the time I came along, I couldn't manage it in the kinds of salaries that I could command as a student. Is my impression correct that that's a relatively rare experience these days? And why is that?

GASMAN: Well...

MARTIN: OK.

GASMAN: ...I can respond to that. I mean, there are an enormous number of students who are working students and in fact are working sometimes two jobs. The research does show that if you're working between 10 and 12 hours a week, that it can really benefit you 'cause it makes you more organized, and it helps you to find balance. It's when you go over, really - when you go over, you know, 17, 20 - some students are working 35 hours a week. That's where, you know, this is becoming dangerous. But I do think that it is a little bit harder. I also think that some of those stories of working your way through college can be a little bit exaggerated from the past. I think people are actually working a little bit more now than they used to be.

MARTIN: President Wilson, what about you? Do you think that's true?

WILSON: Yeah, I do. I do think there's some truth to that. Of course, you know, I ended up working my way through undergraduate school, so to speak. I mean, I had two or three on-campus jobs. And it was really, really tough to work 15, 20 hours a week even back then and graduate on time. So we are seeing here at Morgan is what - a lot of our students are working enormous hours, if you will, and what is happening is that the more hours they work, the fewer credit hours they take. And so the graduation rates are affected by that. And so I think anytime you're serving a population where the students are coming from families that simply cannot afford to contribute handsomely to their education, and they have to work on the side, you're going to, you know, see some of the things that we're seeing at our institution and across the HBCU world.

MARTIN: What are some of the things you're seeing?

WILSON: It is taking students a bit longer to get their degrees. The research is showing that working, especially in kind of menial jobs, is not really very good for students who are majoring in engineering and the sciences. And they need to be spending more and more of that time in the classroom and on research projects. And so we certainly see here at Morgan that having those students work in, you know, those fast food places and other places are getting in the way of their ability to move smoothly through the curriculum into graduating in four or five years.

MARTIN: Interesting. Professor Gasman, you've reported on the fact, we've reported on the fact that a number of HBCUs are struggling with low graduation rates. Does cost factor into that? I mean, do you still find students dropping out because they can't make enough money or find enough money to come back to finish their educations? What do you think is going on there?

GASMAN: It's absolutely a problem. And one of the issues that HBCUs have, they have less institutional aid because they have lower endowments. And they have fewer private gifts that are given to them. And so that's less money to give to students during times of crisis.

So that can make it difficult on student in terms of staying in college. So I would say that definitely is a problem, but this is not necessarily an HBCU problem. Across the board what we find is that students from low-income families have a much more difficult time graduating. And if you just think about it, think about what happens in families that don't have a savings account. When the bottom falls out, it falls out completely. So if you're a low-income student, when things start to get a little bit stressful in school, you don't really have anything to fall back on.

MARTIN: To that end, noting your research, the average endowment for private colleges is $223 million. The average endowment for a private HBCU is $38 million. And I guess that affects the ability to offer discretionary aid, like, for example, if a student has a changing family circumstance right in the middle of his or her student career, for example.

GASMAN: Absolutely.

MARTIN: You know?

GASMAN: Or let's say their books are overwhelmingly expensive one semester. And a change in a family situation is a really good example because one thing we also know is that if you're from a low-income family, you're more likely to have, like, some crises in your family because people sometimes are living on the edge. I mean, I was from one of these families, and there were lots of crises in my family. And it changed my college situation. If an institution doesn't have that kind of buffering system through a larger endowment, it can be difficult for students.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, it's our Paying for College series. We're talking about the financial challenges for students at historically black colleges and universities and also the opportunity of the historically black colleges and universities, which offer, in many cases, a more affordable option for students.

My guests are Marybeth Gasman of the University of Pennsylvania's Graduate School of Education and David Wilson, president of Morgan State University, which is in Baltimore. So let's wheel around and talk a little bit about some practical advice. I mean, one of the things we've talked about previously is that, you know, sometimes people can negotiate more than they think they can on financial aid. President Wilson, on the one hand, I'm sure you've got a lot of people there who are very sympathetic to students' circumstances and are not shocked by them when they find out a student comes in and says, you know, my brother died. And my parents had to pay for the funeral, and that's why I don't have the money for the semester. On the other hand, there's often less of a cushion to work with. Do you have some advice for students and families who find themselves in a bind - perhaps an unexpected bind - what should they do?

WILSON: Well, I certainly think that many of the institutions do whatever they can to set aside institutional aid. This is not federal aid but primarily dollars that they collect through tuition and reallocate those dollars to students who are in need of the financial assistance that they need to keep going. And so I would say to those students, of course, you know, your first option would certainly be to go to your university financial aid office to see if there are institutional funds that may be available to keep you going. Here at Morgan, we take about $12 million of the amount of money that we collect in tuition fees, and we reallocate that money to students who are in dire need of financial assistance to keep going and those students who are making good academic progress.

MARTIN: Professor Gasman, you have some thoughts about this?

GASMAN: One thing that I tell all students, no matter where they are, is you should ask for anything that you need. I mean, you know, when I was a little girl, my mom told me, you know, all they can say is no. So I always ask for what I need, and I think that's really important. I think that you should make sure to establish relationships with faculty and staff. The better relationships you have, the more likely you are to be in the public eye and your needs are to be in the public eye. I always tell students that. I also would say that - that I think people should look at the wide scope of colleges and universities that we have in the country and really take a look at what they offer students and what kind of safety nets that they have in place. I would ask questions about the safety nets. I would also ask questions about student support programs that support you during difficult times 'cause you want to make sure that those programs are out there. So asking - if it's not the student, have the parents ask those kinds of questions. Those are important.

MARTIN: I wanted to ask, though, about - both of you mentioned the experience of working paying jobs to help you get through college. That was also an experience of mine. So I'll just say. You also talked, though, sometimes about the difficulty of balancing work and study. So can you talk a little bit from your own experience, as briefly as you can, about how you would advise a student to balance that.

WILSON: Well, you know, from my perspective what I wish I had in front of me at the time but did not was an internship experience. I can recall, you know, as an undergraduate at Tuskegee that, you know, I pretty much had to, you know, paint all of the solid lines on the roads throughout the campus. And, you know, while that enabled me to make a few bucks, it didn't do anything in terms of advancing my intellectual capacity. What I would say is look for those opportunities that are compatible, you know, with what you are studying at the university. In those 15, 20 hours or so per week, they are almost like an extension, you know, of your laboratory experience or an extension of the discipline in which you are studying. And I think that would certainly be compatible with the kind of educational goals and missions that we have at our institutions.

MARTIN: David Wilson is president of Morgan State University. He was kind enough to join us from member station WEAA in Baltimore. Marybeth Gasman is a professor at the University of Pennsylvania's Graduate School of Education. She joined us from that campus. Thank you both so much for joining us.

GASMAN: Oh, our pleasure.

WILSON: Thank you, Michel.

MARTIN: You can also weigh in with your own story or question about the higher education money maze on Twitter at #PayingForCollege.

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