Students participate in the 148th Commencement Convocation at Howard University on Saturday, May 7, 2016 in Northwest. /Photo by Patricia Little @5feet2
Students participate in the 148th Commencement Convocation at Howard University on Saturday, May 7, 2016 in Northwest. (Patricia Little/The Washington Informer)

Many students at Howard University are fighting an uphill battle to graduation as financial hurdles block the path.

Commencement is set for May 13, but more than 200 of 1,783 prospective graduates are not expected to participate in the ceremony because of financial obligations to the university.

According to the university’s Division of Development and Alumni Relations, 224 seniors who have completed all academic requirements for their degree have balances totaling $1.35 million, preventing them from participating in graduation ceremonies.

“Financial need is the number one barrier to receiving a Howard University degree,” said a statement on the campaign’s website. “This year, 224 students who will have completed all of their academic requirements for graduation are at risk of not receiving their degree because of financial barriers. These students have diligently dedicated thousands of hours towards their studies and have exhausted all other options including financial aid, work-study, off-campus employment and other funding sources.”

About half of Howard University’s undergraduates are eligible for a federal Pell Grant, meaning their family’s income is at or below poverty level.

“Our percentage of high need students far outpaces our local peers whose next highest Pell Grant eligible percentage is around 15 percent,” said a representative from the university’s development department. “One out of every three students currently attending [have] a zero ‘expected family contribution’ to finance the cost of higher education. Underlying financial need is a significant obstacle to graduating for much of our student population.”

In response, the department relaunched its 2015 “Gift a Senior” campaign for donations that would directly be used to help the senior relive their financial obligations to the university.

“The Gift a Senior program leverages the generosity of our benefactors to get academically qualified seniors across that commencement stage and into the global community where they continue Howard’s tradition of producing diverse leaders and trailblazers,” the development department representative said.

The development department says it has seen a gradual increase in alumni giving over the years.

“Since 2015, our generous supporters have made over 1,000 gifts towards Gift a Senior and the campaign has eliminated financial barriers to graduating for over 200 students,” the university’s development spokesperson said.

But so far, the campaign has raised just over $20,000, a dent in the more than $1 million needed, leaving graduation uncertain for a number of students.

Collectively, the seniors whose graduation is in jeopardy because of financial barriers have earned an average GPA of 3.0 on a four-point scale, and spent more than 390,000 hours in classrooms.

A campaign email tells the story of one senior who juggled a job and unpaid internship, in addition to her coursework, after losing a much-needed scholarship. The student was unknowingly exposed to toxic mold after the basement of her home flooded and became ill, causing her grades to slip below the required level for her scholarship.

After getting a proper diagnosis and recovering, her grades also recovered, but her scholarship had already been given to another student.

“It’s scary,” said one senior who still has not been financially cleared by the university and wishes to not be identified. “I’ve heard a lot of success stories, so I’m going to stay hopeful.”

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Tatyana Hopkins – Washington Informer Contributing Writer

Tatyana Hopkins has always wanted to make the world a better place. Growing up she knew she wanted to be a journalist. To her there were too many issues in the world to pick a career that would force her...

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