Arkansas African-American College Students

Shoulder Extra Debt Burden

By Kris Smith and Halie Brown 
The Razorback Reporter

Students at all four of Arkansas’ historically black colleges and universities accumulate higher student loan debt than other state institutions and higher default rates, according to federal data, but graduates say that is part of the cost of living a better life.

Students from Philander Smith College, the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff, Shorter College and Arkansas Baptist College have a median debt higher than the average of $8,684 at all state institutions, according to the U.S. Department of Education College Scorecard.

Photo by Halie Brown
Shorter College has the highest default rate in Arkansas at 47 percent and the smallest student population of all historically black institutions with 236 undergraduates, according to 2015-2016 College Scorecard data.

The institutions also have a higher three-year default rate than the average of 15 percent, with Philander Smith College at 21 percent, Arkansas Baptist College at 23 percent, the UAPB at 26 percent, and Shorter with 47 percent. Shorter College had the highest default rate in Arkansas during 2015-2016, according to College Scorecard.

Little Rock’s Philander Smith College, a private school, has the state’s second highest first-generation student loan debt at $19,000, just $1,500 less than Hendrix University, a private liberal arts college in Conway, according to College Scorecard. Philander Smith also has the fourth highest median student loan debt in Arkansas at $16,875, and the highest median and first-generation student loan debt for all, HBCUs according to College Scorecard.

“It’s an honor to go to (a historically black college or university), but it’s also really expensive,” said Raven Cook, an educator at Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art and the founder of Foundations: Black History Educational Programming.

“It’s a very rich environment to learn about being black,” said Cook, who briefly attended UAPB before transferring to the University of Arkansas-Fayetteville to major in African-American Studies. “And it’s the subtle things, like always speaking to a black professor as they’re walking up or down the sidewalk, going to classes and hearing the subtle integration of black history with what you’re learning. The buildings you walk into are even named after black people sometimes.”

That connection to culture attracts many students to historically black schools, despite the debt.

African-American and Hispanic parents are more likely than white parents to see a college education as essential for their children, according to a survey conducted by the Pew Research Center. Parents raising their children in poor economic circumstances consider higher education the key for their children to reach the middle class, the study found. In comparison, white parents are more likely to already be a part of the middle class, therefore education isn’t needed for their children to get that status.

Students who attend or graduate from one of more than 100 HBCUs around the U.S. leave with an average student loan debt that is greater than their counterparts, according to the report “Fewer Resources, More Debt: Loan Debt Burdens Students at Historically Black Colleges and Universities” by the United Negro College Fund’s Frederick D. Patterson Research Institute.

Nearly 64 percent of HBCU graduates borrowed more than $20,000 in comparison to 37 percent of students at other institutions. The higher debt occurs despite historically black colleges costing $8,000 less a year on average than four-year predominantly white schools, according to the UNCF report.

Students who fail to pay their loans can affect their schools too. When an institution has a default rate over 30 percent for three years, it can lose access to the direct loan program and the federal Pell grant program. If an institution has a default rate of 40 percent for one year, it can lose it direct loan program eligibility, according to Federal Student Aid an office of the U.S. Department of Education.

Photo by Halie Brown
A marker at Shorter College, a historically black college founded in 1886 as the Bethel Institute.

Demetrius Gilbert, 59, the associate dean of academic and student affairs at Shorter College in Little Rock, understands the hardships of taking on huge debt. Gilbert obtained a bachelor’s, master’s and Ph.D. from Jackson State University in Mississippi, racking up $160,000 in debt. She is working on a second master’s degree.

Even though she has been paying off loans since 2011, the total remains at $160,000, she said.

“I will probably die still owing them,” Gilbert said.

Gilbert completed her bachelor’s degree owing only $450. After paying that, she decided to get a master’s degree. With $7,000 left to repay from getting her master’s degree, Gilbert decided to get a Ph.D. This degree cost her the most, she said. Gilbert is enrolled in an income-based repayment plan, and her payments are roughly $260 a month. She also is enrolled in a 10-year loan forgiveness program because she works at an HBCU in a low-income area. After a decade, the loan will be forgiven.

“We’re always trying to improve our skills and to increase our level of income because education determines that,” Gilbert said. “That’s why I did what I did.”

Photo by Halie Brown
Patricia Swinton, a University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff graduate and former Philander Smith College English professor.

One reason for Philander Smith’s and other universities’ high median and first-generation student loan debt is they often have an open-door policy – accepting students who haven’t taken standard tests such as the ACT, which often is a requirement for many scholarships, said Patricia Swinton, a former Philander Smith English teacher and UAPB graduate.

“A lot of the students who go are poor- to medium-income students that normally wouldn’t have had a chance to attend college if Philander didn’t reach out to them,” Swinton said.

Shorter College is trying to educate students about student loan debt, said Brian Neal, a sophomore at the school.

Neal is a general studies major at Shorter and plans to attend either the University of Arkansas-Little Rock or the University of Central Arkansas after he graduates to get a bachelor’s in economics and finance. When he is done, he expects to have $30,000 in student loan debt, including $10,000 from Shorter, he said.

Neal thinks Shorter is more concerned about education and what its students can afford. The financial aid department visits classes and has an orientation about student loan debt, where faculty counsel students about taking out more than they can afford, he said.

This is not always the case, though.

Jeremy Williams, a 2013 Philander Smith College graduate, is frustrated by how his debt blossomed while he was in school. Williams had a scholarship from Philander Smith as well as the Arkansas Challenge scholarship and thought he would have had enough to pay his student account balance and have money for his books. However, he had to take out student loans just to pay for textbooks, he said.

“It wasn’t a lot at first,” said Williams, who has debt of about $6,500. “More debt came when I started getting my master’s. Which is what I’m in now, because the more education you get the more money you have to take out to go.”

This is not an uncommon problem among historically black colleges and universities, Philander Smith graduate Tarai Rolle noticed. Many of his peers who attended historically black schools have come across the same issue with financial aid offices not educating students on how to properly apply, obtain and spend student loans, he said.

“I think it is just overwhelming for them so they have to do their job as efficiently as they can and sometimes it’s just not done the best way,” Rolle said. “They just make sure they get the job done.”

One way to decrease the amount of debt for all college students is for lawmakers to reshape federal student aid policies and programs to help students secure more resources, according to the UNCF report.

Photo by Halie Brown
University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff Class of 2019 paw print.

Cook, the former UAPB student, thinks there should be more investment into education and historically black colleges and universities to make sure they stay open, she said. Campus leaders need to find alternative student housing that is more affordable to reduce tuition costs, she said.

“Every level has to have people committed to working to make sure HBCUs are really, really protected and valued as they should be,” Cook said, “because they are really special spaces that have kept us going for a long time.”