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.