At HBCUs, Crushing Student Loan Debt Is a Symptom of Even Bigger Problems

Lacking large endowments for generous scholarships compared to many non-HBCUs, much of the burden can fall on the students to depend on substantial loans to make up gaps in aid

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Mike Stewart/AP

Last month, when billionaire philanthropist Robert Smith thrust historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) into the national spotlight by pledging to eliminate up to $40 million in student loans for Morehouse College's almost 400 graduates, his gift was heralded as both historic and likely life-changing for those students. But student loan debt is merely a symptom of a systemic problem that dates back to the schools' beginnings, according to Marybeth Gasman, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania and an expert on HBCUs.

“When these institutions were created they weren't created on equal footing with historically white institutions,” she said. “So what happens is basically you end up with a situation where the majority (white) institutions continue to get wealthier because wealth begets wealth, and the HBCUs are behind.”

HBCUs were founded and subsidized by states, the federal government, philanthropists or churches to educate black Americans who were barred from attending majority-white colleges, NBC News reports. But in recent years, financial woes, among other issues, have forced a number of the schools to the brink of closure or put their accreditation at risk.

Gasman said that more than 70 percent who attend HBCUs rely on federal Pell Grants, which is aid for students who demonstrate financial need. But for these students, there's usually still a gap between the Pell Grant money and the aid the school offers — which is where loans come in.

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