Black youth understand the importance of higher education. (Courtesy photo)
Black youth understand the importance of higher education. (Courtesy photo)

Southeast resident and college student Cairo Pondexter said the anxiety over how she would finance her education increased upon learning that at least five of her classmates wouldn’t return to Delaware State University in the fall because of delinquent payments.

Pondexter, a sophomore, said she spent much of the spring semester and summer break securing tax documents needed for financial assistance and paying the $500 balance that would allow her to move back on campus in late August. With the help of her mother, she and her brother Jeffrey launched a GoFundMe campaign to raise the remaining funds needed to tackle her fall semester bill.

For the full-time psychology student, these minor inconveniences pale in comparison to what she described as a life of unfulfilling minimum-wage employment.

“I didn’t have any scholarships so I had to depend on the D.C College Access Program (DC-CAP), DC Tuition Assistance Grant (DCTAG), and student loans,” Pondexter, 19, said Sunday shortly after clocking out of her job at a local supermarket.

Out of the $14,000-per-semester price tag, Pondexter and her family would only be responsible for $3,800 to be paid in monthly installments between August and January 2020. For her, mitigating these expenses meant paying attention to the minor details, including the price of the dorm in which she would stay for the academic year.

“It wasn’t impossible to go to school, but it would have been way easier [with scholarships],” Pondexter said. “I was worried about how I would pay for school, but people with experience told me money was going to come if you work for it. Coming from a low-income family, it was risky. If our bill [from the spring semester] wasn’t satisfied, then they wouldn’t let us move back in.”

According to a study conducted by the United Negro College Fund (UNCF) last year, fewer than half of African American students in situations similar to Pondexter complete their undergraduate education within six years. Among African American male students, completion rates are even lower.

Researchers point to obligations to family — especially among first-generation college students — knowledge gaps, and an inability to navigate the college adviser arena as key indicators of the American education system’s 30 million college dropout epidemic. All the while, tuition has increased by an average of more than $34,000 within the past decade, according to data collected by College Board.

Within that time span, state funding for public colleges and universities has significantly declined in what the American Council on Education says will result in the ultimate privatization of higher education in the next 40 years.

Even with the euphoric feeling a college diploma, a significant number of graduates grapple with the accumulation of loans that darken their prospects of financial freedom. Less than 20 percent of African American students, according to the aforementioned UNCF study, completed their education without borrowing money. Among those who financed education through those means, 16 percent will have to pay back $75,000 or more. On the other hand, 43 percent of their white counterparts avoid taking out loans.

Making matters worse, Black college graduates earn relatively less than their colleagues of other racial backgrounds over the course of their careers, making it even more difficult to pay back their loans. Despite those circumstances, community leaders like Kenneth Ward tout a college education as the ideal path to an enriching life for students of color in the D.C. metropolitan area.

As executive director of College Bound, Inc., a Northwest-based nonprofit dedicated to preparing public and charter school students for college, Ward said he stresses the importance of applying for scholarships to the more-than-200 eighth graders and high school students enrolled in the program. During weekly sessions at academic mentoring sites scattered across the District, young people, with the help of mentors, vie for scholarship opportunities, large and small.

Every academic year at College Bound, Inc. culminates in a ceremony where graduating seniors receive tens of millions of dollars in scholarships before an audience of their peers, family, and mentors.

For some young people, however, the struggle continues well into their freshman and sophomore year of college.

“A lot of scholarships are one-time awards. This means students get that money for the first year, and not the other years,” said Ward, a former teacher with more than a decade of experience in the classroom.

“There’s also that whole piece about generational wealth. African-American families don’t have the savings or investments to afford to pay for their kids [to go to] college,” he said. “Over 75 percent of Black students [nationwide] are relying on loans, but that’s not enough because of caps. In addition, some parents can’t get these loans because of credit issues. These are things keeping students from accessing higher education.”

D.C. residents who graduate from high school have at their disposal the DCTAG and DC-CAP, along with whatever amount they secure by applying to the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, also known as FAFSA.

DCTAG recipients get up to $10,000 toward the difference between in-state and out-of-state tuition at public colleges and universities. They also receive up to $2,500 per academic year in scholarships when they matriculate to District-based higher education institutions and historically Black colleges and universities.
Toward the end of the 2018-19 academic year, 10th-, 11th- and 12th-graders enrolled in D.C. Public Schools received copies of their individualized Student Guide to Graduation, College and Career, a document that aggregates college and career opportunities unique to students’ interests and includes an action plan.

Though the guide, inspired by a similar movement out of Long Beach, California, doesn’t touch on how students finance their higher education, DCPS officials touted it as the launching pad for productive conversations between students and their counselors.

In some of the District’s low-income enclaves, community members like Patrice Lancaster have worked to ensure that college students, particularly those who will be the first in their family to take that leap, can rely on neighbors and other nongovernmental sources for financial assistance.

On Saturday, she and Marc Williams of D.C. Department of Parks and Recreation co-hosted for the third consecutive year a Freshman Sendoff event at Bald Eagle Recreation Center in Southeast during which 20 college freshmen received dorm and school supplies. Lancaster said nine people, including D.C. Council member Trayon White (D-Ward 8) contributed to the cause.

Days after what she considered a successful function, Lancaster mulled the possibility of helping more first-generation college students along an arduous application process, particularly when it comes to acquiring scholarships.

“Students and families have to be more familiar with the scholarship process,” said Lancaster, a Southeast resident. “I think we would have even more successful outcomes of young people securing their education and getting money to pay for it.

“One of my future goals is to start earlier, and track the young people we send off to college to find out how we can help them successfully complete school,” Lancaster said. “The more partnerships we have, we would not only be able to help the students, but the parents [for whom] it might be a new process.”

Sam P.K. Collins has more than a decade of experience as a journalist, columnist and organizer. Sam, a millennial and former editor of WI Bridge, covers education, police brutality, politics, and other...

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