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Some low-income students who do apply to top colleges are running into new roadblocks. Borrowing money to pay for it all, has gotten tougher in the past few years. That's because the federal government has tightened lending guidelines.
As NPR's Hansi Lo Wang reports the new policy has hit historically black colleges and universities especially hard.
HANSI LO WANG, BYLINE: A little more than a year ago, Ashleigh Uzoaru received a letter.
ASHLEIGH UZOARU: I cried. Me, my mom, my guidance counselor - lots of happy tears. And I just was ecstatic that I was able to get into the college that I wanted to go to most.
WANG: That college was one of the country's most prominent historically black schools - Howard University in Washington, D.C. Uzoaru is the first of four siblings to go to college. A federal Parent PLUS Loan helped pay for her first year at Howard. And she expected to be approved again for her sophomore year. Instead, Uzoaru received an email denying the loan request this summer. She's now attending a local community college in New Jersey, which she says is the more affordable choice.
UZOARU: But the name is what's going to carry you after you graduate. People are going to see, oh, you went to Howard. Oh, you went to Georgetown, Yale, NYU - whatever it be - and put you on a certain platform.
WANG: A platform that for students like Uzoaru, comes with a hefty price tag. Federal PLUS loans help fill the gap for many students' college costs after other financial aid. They're the only federal school loans without a limit on borrowing amounts, and with an interest rate of 7.9 percent. [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: The interest rate was lowered to 6.41 percent in July.] Applicants are only judged by their credit histories. And two years ago, the government also began checking for any unpaid debts referred to collection agencies, or that had been written off.
Kevin Carey, who studies education policy at the New America Foundation, says it was the right decision.
KEVIN CAREY: The bottom line is, there's a reason that any lender - the federal government included - takes into account credit worthiness when making loans. That goes directly to the odds of those loans being paid back.
WANG: Still, the tighter rules around the Parent PLUS Loans have had a huge impact on many historically black colleges and universities, including Baltimore's Morgan State University. Its enrollment numbers have dropped, says President David Wilson, who recently spoke with NPR.
DAVID WILSON: When you're coming from these limited-resource families and you just simply don't have to money to write a check to a college or university, how else do you expect students who just don't have the money, to experience the magic of education?
WANG: Students at historically black colleges and universities are often first-generation college students from low-income families, says Johnny Taylor, who heads an advocacy group, the Thurgood Marshall College Fund.
JOHNNY TAYLOR: See, we talk about accessibility a lot. And in the past, that issue was one of sort of civil rights accessibility - I could not get into said school because I was black or yellow, or whatever. Now, the issue is: I can't afford to attend these schools. And Parent PLUS was a tool.
WANG: One of the few tools available to many historically black colleges and universities, given their low endowments. Education Secretary Arne Duncan recently told NPR's TELL ME MORE with Michel Martin that the government's priority is to make college more affordable for students.
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SECRETARY ARNE DUNCAN: If they don't have access to the Parent PLUS Loan, there are other grants that they automatically have access to. And in fact, those grants have gone up. So we want to make sure we're doing the right thing there. But again, we don't want folks to be buried in debt that they can't pay back.
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WANG: It's about midday in the grassy quad of Washington, D.C.'s Howard University. Things are a little different at Howard for 20-year-old Narica Clarke, now that she's a sophomore. She's noticed signs on her smartphone that some friends aren't back in school.
NARICA CLARKE: It's more of a - (Laughter) - your Instagram followers are at work.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: What?
CLARKE: Mostly your friends that you expect to be going to class are posting that they're going to work.
WANG: You've noticed that?
CLARKE: I've noticed that.
WANG: Last month, the Education Department began reconsidering some denied applications for the Parent PLUS Loan. It plans to revisit its policy about the loan program in the spring.
Hansi Lo Wang, NPR News.
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