FARAI CHIDEYA, host:
From NPR News, this is News & Notes, I'm Farai Chideya.
There are plenty of great public colleges like UCLA. They used to be much cheaper than equally strong private colleges. But now the price of many public colleges is rising fast, and that leaves some high school students with little or no choice for higher education, including African-American students. So what options do you have if you want to get an education but don't want to run up years' worth of student loans? We'll ask economist and author Dr. Julianne Malveaux; she is the president of Bennett College. Hi, Dr. Malveaux.
Dr. JULIANNE MALVEAUX (President, Bennett College): Hi Farai, how are you?
CHIDEYA: I'm great. Across the country, though, public and state universities are reporting anywhere from a 5 to 8 percent tuition increase for the upcoming year. Why is that?
Dr. MALVEAUX: Costs are rising. If you are running a college, you are looking at energy costs, you are looking at the same costs that the rest of the nation is looking at. And so people are raising tuitions to go along with that. Some of us are not. Bennett College's tuition has been stable for the last three years. We are not raising tuition this year. But many colleges are looking at the costs and saying, we've got to meet it. In addition, frankly, there have been years where colleges have not raised costs, and now people are trying to catch up. In some state universities, people have not seen raises in two or three years, they have seen pay freezes, and so now we are trying to catch up. Lots of people are trying to catch up.
CHIDEYA: But what does that mean? You know, for a college to catch up, students, a lot of students, you know, first of all just don't have any income, period. Secondly, if they are working part time, they often aren't making nearly enough to actually pay the freight. Does this mean that students end up taking out a greater burden of loans?
Dr. MALVEAUX: You're raising the right questions, Farai; it absolutely does. What it means is that if colleges try to catch up, then they raise tuition and students have to pay for it. And of course, we are looking at an economy that is flat, if not falling. You know, the R word keeps coming up, are we in a recession or not. We are looking at any number of things for students. And it means that students are being faced with more debt to take on, more costs to bear. At the biggest schools, with the greatest endowments - I mean, Harvard and Yale and Princeton are saying, if you are poor we'll take you, you don't have to pay anything. But most schools can't do that.
So we are looking at really a challenge for young people, if you want to make yourself more competitive, you've got to get a college education. And we know, the data says, if you get a college education, you are likely to make over the course of your life about a million dollars more that you would if you didn't. But the flipside is, how much debt are you going to be shackled with?
CHIDEYA: Tell us about historically black colleges and universities. You mentioned that Bennett, your school, has not raised costs, but how much is tuition? And how does that fall in the range of HBCUs?
Dr. MALVEAUX: Well, Bennett College's tuition is $21,300; that's tuition, room and board for a year. That's the same as it was last year, and the year before that, I think, we went up by about 5 percent. Most historically black colleges have tuitions that are lower than other private colleges. We attempt to deal with our students where they are. I will tell you that 92 percent of my students receive financial aid. Nearly half are first generation.
So when you look at that, it does not behoove us to raise tuition at this time, even though we have the same rising gas prices, the same rising food prices, the same inflation that everyone else is experiencing. But HBCUs are a bargain, Farai, we are a bargain for young people. And the other thing we know is that we meet young people where they are, we take them to where they need to be, we work intensely with our young people. But at the same time, we really do understand that this proposition called higher education is becoming unaffordable for many people, and we really need to work on ways to make sure that every student who has the desire and the ability, has the opportunity to have access to higher education.
CHIDEYA: When you think about the budget cuts, for example, in many states which are affecting the cost of public higher education, what kind of ripple effects do you think that will have in the country, if basically people are priced out of going to college?
Dr. MALVEAUX: Some young people will go to community colleges as opposed to going to a four-year institution. Some will just sit out and say, I'm not going to be able to do it. Parents are using their home equity and, you know, with the mortgage crisis that we have right now, there is less home equity to use. Some folks are looking at - some parents dedicated to their young people's success are actually raiding their retirement accounts, which is something that many financial analysts, myself included, do not advise. However, if you want to look ahead, the question is how you do it, community college?
But there is another thing. There is a young woman out of Louisiana who wrote a book called "How to Get Money for College." She was about a three-point student at a Louisiana high school. She found over a hundred thousand dollars by just working it. By just going in and looking for those grants, those loans, those other things. Uncf.com, the United Negro College Fund, has lots of money available; you've got to apply for it. And my experience in the past year as president of Bennett, reminds me to tell students, you've got to be aggressive, we are going to meet you halfway, but get aggressive. Your church has money, your mother's sorority has money, your dad's lodge has money, just get aggressive because you have got to bring it, you really got to bring it.
CHIDEYA: Is it worth it? And what I mean by that is that - you know, we've talked a bit about whether or not in some cases grad school is worth it - but if you walk out of college with $80,000 in loans, which can happen, is it worth the cost?
Dr. MALVEAUX: Well, if you walk - if you don't go to college and you end up with a million dollars less in lifetime income, what do you think? I mean, certainly it's hard, and certainly there are lots of possibilities that young people have around coming out with $80,000 worth of debt. Much of that debt can be negotiated, but the fact is that we know that if you have a college degree, you are going to earn more than someone who didn't. And so, yes it is worth it, it is snarly. We need to change public policy, Farai, so that young people who want to matriculate and want to excel and want to have access should have it. But before we change public policy, any young person who wants to go to college, if you have to take a loan, I think it is worth it.
CHIDEYA: There are a lot of people who go to college and they want to study something. And that something does not seem to have very much earnings potential, and people, like parents, say, do something else. If you have a passion that doesn't seem to have a high earnings potential, what would you, as someone who is the president of a university, say? Pursue your passion? Or go for something more practical?
Dr. MALVEAUX: I say do a combination - pursue your passion absolutely, but have a fallback plan. I always tell people to have plan A, B, C, D and E. You want to be a writer? Go for it. But meanwhile, can you be an English teacher on the side, you know? I think of Sadie Tanner Mozell Alexander, who was the first black woman to get a PhD in economics. She got it from the University of Pennsylvania. She was not able to find a job pursuing her passion, and so she ended up going back to get a law degree. And she contributed mightily to the study of law and mightily to her sorority and mine, Delta Sigma Theta, mightily to many things. She didn't get her first choice, but she got another choice.
So I always tell people, look at your many choices. Don't close any doors. But the fact is that, you know, take your passion, take it as far as you can, but understand you've got to make a living, and you've got to pay the loan back.
CHIDEYA: What about people like you, who are college presidents? What challenges are you facing in trying to make sure that you can get a broad variety of students from different backgrounds?
Dr. MALVEAUX: Farai, you know, what keeps me up at night is the young women who want to be admitted but don't have the dollars, the young women who are students who are continuing, who are saying, I need more financial aid, the young women whose parents can't take out another loan. That literally keeps me up at night. If you see me again and I'm gray, that's what did it.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Dr. MALVEAUX: I mean literally. I mean, I wake up in the - you know, I wake up in the middle of the night and say, how can I find money for these young people? It is a challenge.
We want every brain to work and to be fully engaged, and we know that college education provides opportunity for so many people. But at the same time, the dollars are not there. We've got to raise the dollars. I've got 105 - 104 peers, HBCU presidents, and we're all doing the same thing, trying to raise money to make sure that our students come into the world with as little debt as we can provide for them. We're trying to get our friends and our colleagues and our comrades to say, I'm going to invest in this college.
It is so daunting when I think about how we've gone in 20, 30 years, and how few opportunities our young people have. And so all I can do is work hard, beg hard, you know, ask for people to invest in our young people, but that literally is what keeps me up at night.
CHIDEYA: So who are your allies in trying to make sure that young people have a place to go?
Dr. MALVEAUX: I think there are many members of the Congressional Black Caucus and other congressional members who are looking at the Higher Education Act and trying to raise the amount for PELL and other things. Those are allies. I think we have corporate friends who, if the case is made properly, will invest. I think there are individuals, there are high- net-worth African-Americans who will invest, and I think there are lots of other people. Someone saw me on CNN the other day and sent me $25 and said, this should go to a student.
Dr. MALVEAUX: And it both broke my heart and gave me wings, because it meant that there was somebody who was watching and listening and learning and hoping that we can invest in the next generation.
CHIDEYA: Dr. Malveaux, thank you.
Dr. MALVEAUX: Thank you.
CHIDEYA: Julianne Malveaux is an economist, author and president of Bennett College. She joined us from our NPR headquarters in Washington, D.C.