Over the last few weeks I have watched proud family members, friends, classmates and alumni post pictures and videos of college graduations throughout the country. The images helped me reminisce about my time at Cheyney University of Pennsylvania and the lifelong relationships, heartbreak, struggles and triumphs that shaped me while I was there. Those experiences influenced the person I am today and taught me how to push through obstacles on the path to my career. In retrospect, I realize that without the support of administrators, faculty, staff and fellow students, my road would have been far more difficult. This is particularly true because I graduated from a historically Black college and university (HBCU).
As a student, I carried the burden of trying to pay for my college education without incurring thousands of dollars in debt. However, despite this setback, like many Black people, I realized that earning a college degree would transform my life. Over a lifetime college graduates make more money than individuals with a high school diploma but crossing that graduation finish line can be difficult for a Brother with limited resources.
Brothers, particularly those who attend HBCUs, are more likely than students from predominantly White institutions (PWIs) to come from families with limited resources, and they are also more likely to need academic support. This is why it is important to help HBCUs increase retention rates among Black men by creatively looking at ways to reduce student debt. Unfortunately, this summer thousands of college matriculating Black men will spend their precious time “off” stressing over a tuition balance from the previous year while also working a summer job, searching for additional funding and supporting their families.
I know what it feels like to be a young person and to carry the burden of paying for tuition each year. For my first semester at Cheyney, I paid out of pocket to make my college dream a reality. While walking towards the university representative, I literally spent each second counting every penny in my head to ensure I could cover my tuition. The pressure from that moment will always stay with me, as I intimately understand how a lack of financial resources prevents some Black men from graduating.
A recent study of students at HBCUs by Tammy Lane at Prairie View A & M University found that the lack of financial resources (institutional aid and scholarships.) negatively impacted a student’s ability to graduate. Retaining students at HBCUs is inextricably linked to providing as much financial support as possible. However, because of historical inequities—which can sometimes include limited state funding—some Black colleges struggle to provide ample aid, and as a result, the attrition rate rises. It’s a problem that far too many of our colleges have to overcome.
For Brothers who are financially struggling, they must realize that attending college can be an uphill battle yet they have to continue to work hard to supplement their financial aid. HBCU experts agree that Black males, in comparison to other groups, encounter unique obstacles. According to Robert Palmer, an associate professor in the school of education at Howard University: “like traditional college students elsewhere, research had shown that students at HBCUs are working full time while being fully enrolled in school to pay tuition. Black men at HBCUs are especially more prone to this given the need to contribute to their household back home.”
Palmer continues, “while research supports working part-time, preferably on campus, working full-time significantly hinders the retention and persistence of Black men at HBCUs.” For those of us who work and attend school full-time the academic experience is a rite of passage.
Students that survive the financial aid maze feel like they can accomplish anything. After graduating from an HBCU, many students feel prepared to tear down glass ceilings and other invisible (or visible) barriers that block their path. A study by Gallup found that more HBCU alumni feel that their schools prepared them better for life after college than those who did not attend HBCUs. That is the value of an HBCU education. For Black men, despite the problems, many benefit from that HBCU environment, which is nurturing and particularly recognizes a Black man’s potential for greatness.
“Life at Morehouse was fundamentally solid as it presented you with challenges that were intentionally strategic—the halls of academic expectation– and with others that were indirectly strategic—the social environment,” says Morehouse alum Tim Patterson, who is now a U.S. Army logistics officer. “With this approach, it demanded that each man grow to wear his crown with the anticipated transition of being a Man of Morehouse to becoming a Morehouse Man.”
Patterson’s comments illustrate how HBCUs help some Black men find their identity.
Patterson’s beliefs are shared with other HBCU grads. Kyle Adams, a Cheyney alumnus, who is now Cheyney's head women's basketball coach, believes “attending an HBCU was one of the best decisions I have made in my life. Cheyney provided me with tangible examples of men and women who were committed to enhancing the lives of our people.”
Fortunately HBCUs, including institutions such as Howard University, are finding ways to help Black men like Adams. This year, at HU, more than 100 students received a rebate for graduating in four years. Howard’s progressive plan could provide a template for other HBCUs. Finding ways to help Black men stay on the college path is important, and a college graduate rebate program is a nice way to get some extra cash in the pocket on the way out the door. And since wealth tends to beget wealth, a college degree opens opportunities for Brothers to create wealth and give back to their local community.
Dr. Larry J. Walker is a consultant and former Capitol Hill staffer. He is the co-editor of “Graduate Education at Historically Black Colleges and Universities: A Student Perspective.” Follow him on Twitter: @LarryJWalker2.