Before getting accepted into New York University, I had never contemplated sleeping on the sidewalk. But two weeks after moving to New York City in the fall of 2016, I was running out of options. I hardly knew a soul in the city. I had bad credit, unqualified guarantors, and no luck with NYU’s “very limited” graduate housing.
So at the dawn of my first semester of graduate school, I stood on the Avenue of the Americas in Lower Manhattan, watching the sun disappear behind the skyline, unsure of where to go next.
The fear and insecurity that seized me that night resonates with many black college students. Across the country, black students at community colleges and universities are more likely than non-Hispanic white students to experience food insecurity, housing insecurity and homelessness, according to a 2018 study by Temple University and the Wisconsin HOPE Lab.
The study reported on over 43,000 students at 66 institutions in 20 states and found that 47 percent of black students at four-year universities struggled with consistent access to nutritious food compared to 30 percent of white students.
This news of racial economic inequality is certainly not new to American life, but its persistence in higher education, a place lauded as the great leveler of inequality, calls into question colleges’ commitment to addressing the stark financial disparities black students face.
Fortunately for me, I never had to sleep on the sidewalk. That lonely night standing on Sixth Avenue, I called an old coworker with whom I interned a few years back. He lent me his living-room floor. A few days later I worked the phones again, and I headed up to Yonkers with another former coworker. Eventually, I found my own hostel-like dormitory deep in the heart of Brooklyn. But even then, housing was only the beginning of my financial woes.
Soon, there were the mandatory study-abroad trips where I was required to pay for meals and travel in advance. There was the lapse in financial aid, where I was asked to cover the cost of attendance until NYU, the multibillion-dollar institution, could clear its checks. And in a city like New York, there was always, always the looming specter of sky-high rent.
After that first year, it became increasingly clear that graduate school had more hidden fees than a cell-phone bill. I was facing mounting costs. And true to the nation’s yawning wealth gap, where black families have only a 10th of the net worth of white families, I was without a generational war chest to pay my way. So naturally, I took out more loans.
According to the Brookings Institution, African Americans carry more student debt ($53,000 versus $28,000) after graduation and experience a larger default rate on their loans (7.6 percent versus 2.4 percent) than white Americans.
And not only do black students borrow more money, they do so at higher rates. According to an analysis of government data by the Center for American Progress, a public-policy think tank, 81 percent of black students borrowed federal loans compared with 65 percent of white students.
The weight of these loans is not merely an inconvenience. Studies show that student debt prevents graduates from buying homes and starting businesses. And for many black students, a group already hindered by generations of redlining and employment discrimination, the college degree that is supposed to drive wealth-building opportunities can easily become yet another financial drag.
Ultimately, it is a poor reflection on America’s colleges and universities that the black college experience regularly involves food and housing insecurity throughout matriculation and crushing debt after graduation. However, there are outliers that show it doesn’t have to be this way. Colleges like Georgia State University highlight how when schools are intentional about fostering racial equality, they can help black college students succeed.
Georgia State has adopted several programs designed to meet the needs of low-income students, including micro grants for unpaid tuition, fee balances, and wrap-around services for at-risk students that provide tutoring, advising and financial literacy programs.
According to The New York Times, “By focusing on retaining low-income students, rather than just enrolling them, the college raised its graduation rate to 54 percent in 2017 from 32 percent in 2003.” And for the last five years, Georgia State University has awarded more Bachelor’s degrees to African-Americans than any other nonprofit college or university in the country.
This is a sharp contrast from schools like NYU, where the student body is only 4.8 percent African American, and where graduating black students appears to be far from the institution’s goals.
But for the country’s colleges, perhaps more so than any other American institution, the case for scaling racially equitable initiatives couldn’t be more clear.
Moving across history, it can be difficult to trace how today’s institutions benefit from past discrimination. As the years go on, plantation land deeds changed hands and Jim Crow–era farms were absorbed by new businesses. And looking back, the litany of transactions make it difficult to trace a single through line from slavery and Jim Crow to today—but not for colleges. The same Harvard University that financed chattel slavery still sits in Cambridge and the same Georgetown University that sold black bodies still stands in Washington, DC.
These and other institutions of higher learning have literally separated black families and stunted the ability of black people to obtain wealth. Today, the least they can do is uphold their promise of leveling the current playing field and address their past of creating inequality by being intentional about providing quality education that includes robust social services. From providing free room and board to a network of counselors and mentors, there is no shortage of policies universities can employ to aid black students.
If America’s universities are ever to meaningfully address racial economic inequality, they must apply the same ingenuity they use to pioneer innovations like face-switch surgery to enrolling and graduating black students without saddling them with crushing debt. Maybe then, students will have time to focus on their education—and not if they’re going to eat, where they’re will live, or if they can pay for their education once they are done.