As many Black students continue to struggle to pay for college, a troubling analysis of financial aid distribution revealed a disproportionately low number of Black students are receiving scholarships—but these statistics may actually be indicative of a much larger problem when it comes to Black students and education.
Disturbingly, officials at some of the largest programs in the nation dedicated to helping Black students fund their college education and excel in the classroom say that Black students are not taking advantage of all the resources they have available to pay for college, either because they are not aware or are not willing to participate in lengthy scholarship processes. As a result, they actually are returning tens of thousands of unused dollars back to donors.
“For the last three years I have returned money to donors,” Johnny C. Taylor, the President and CEO of the Thurgood Marshall College Fund, revealed after explaining that the organization couldn’t give all the money away due to a lack of completed applications.
Recent studies revealed that Black students are graduating with far more debt than their white counterparts and while there are many factors contributing to this trend, one major difference is the amount of scholarship money that each demographic is receiving.
In 2011, Caucasian students enrolled full-time in Bachelor’s degree programs at four-year colleges and universities received more than 75 percent of private scholarships despite the fact that they represented less than 65 percent of the total population, according to a report released by Mark Kantrowitz, the publisher of Fastweb.com and FinAid.org.
White undergrads alone represented nearly 70 percent of the scholarship recipients although they only represented 61.8 percent of the undergraduate population.
Students of color only represented 30.5 percent of scholarship recipients although they made up nearly 40 percent of that same student population.
Black students alone represent 14 percent of the undergraduate population for full-time students at four-year colleges and universities but only accounted for 11.2 percent of the scholarship recipients.
The statistics suggest that Caucasian students are 40 percent more likely to win private scholarships than students of color, according to Kantrowitz.
“Caucasian students receive a disproportionately greater share of private scholarship funding,” the report states.
This trend is exactly why many organizations have launched scholarships specifically for Black students. Although students of any race are eligible to apply for these scholarships, the pool of applicants is still composed of predominantly Black students.
Even these scholarships, however, tend to be few and far between.
The 2011 analysis revealed that from 1991 to 1992 only about 5 percent of college-controlled scholarships were restricted to “minority students” and the trend hasn’t changed much since then, leaving students of color struggling to pay for their education.
“Last year the average tuition, room, board and fees for our freshman, which would have been the class of 2017, was about $48,000,” said Westina Matthews, Vice President and Chief Program Officer for the Jackie Robinson Foundation. “And the average financial aid package provided was about $36,000, so there was a $12,000 gap in what was needed and this was consistent with the year prior.”
“Fewer and fewer scholarships are being made available period,” Taylor said. “Gone are the days when donors are quick to just give away scholarships. That’s number one. There is an overall decline in scholarship opportunities.”
Many Black families have far less money to contribute to funding their child’s education and financial aid packages by the government often overestimate the amount that parents will be able to contribute to their child’s college expenses, making private scholarships all that much more dire for Black students.
The problem, according to Matthews, is that many students don’t understand where they need to go to learn about these resources. She explained that applying for scholarships alone is like a “part-time job.”
Many Black students are unaware of “the resources on campus, where they can go to get assistance, personal attention, advisers, mentors, and academic support.”
“Even going and identifying who is the financial aid officer and beginning to engage in a conversation with them, finding an advocate or champion on campus for them and help them have the conversation about what their financial needs are is something that we find we have to help teach our scholars so that they can be successful in navigating the college environment,” Matthews said.
Matthews explained that without knowing how and where to receive such assistance, Black students not only miss out on financial aid opportunities but they also face tougher challenges when it comes to performing well in the classroom.
Without a competitive academic performance, chances of winning a scholarship become even slimmer for these students.
Matthews also added that community service and extracurricular activities are key for students who hope to win scholarships and even those opportunities tend to elude Black students.
Black students are far less likely to be receiving sufficient financial support from home due to a growing racial wealth gap.
This puts more pressure on Black students to work more hours while also attending school full-time and can leave them with fewer opportunities to partake in the types of activities that could increase their chances of winning scholarships.
While these problems are a very real and an unfortunate reality for Black students, they also don’t explain the sheer size of the gap in how many scholarships Black students receive compared to Caucasian students in the analysis.
Taylor explained that the donors that are still giving money are not giving them as grants anymore and the concept of “you’re Black, you qualify” is becoming obsolete.
Scholarships are becoming more competitive and time consuming and parents have to instill a love and passion for education in their children or they won’t take the extra time necessary to seek out and complete scholarships.
Taylor said he has returned money to donors in each of the last three years and Matthews said incomplete applications come in frequently at the Jackie Robinson Foundation as well.
Matthews explained that the Jackie Robinson Foundation sees a large share of applications that are simply not filled out or completed, and that automatically disqualifies students.
Taylor said earlier this year more than $100,000 was set aside for students and he had to return more than $70,000 of it because students did not complete the applications with a 500-word essay and two letters of recommendation.
Another time, a Black student in her senior year of college contacted Taylor to ask for financial assistance.
She explained that without some sort of scholarship she may be unable to complete her final year of college.
Taylor had a simple message for the student: “The money is sitting there. I will make it happen.”
All she had to do was complete the application.
Months went by and her application never came in.
“I told her, ‘You just lost $5,000,’” Taylor said after the student claimed she got busy with finals and a part-time job. “‘Your part-time job won’t give you $5,000.’ ”
The application process takes 20 minutes on average and he offered to write her a letter of recommendation himself.
“That I saw with my own eyes this year—a student who claimed she was in dire need—and you know later on she’ll be counted in those statistics of Black students who wanted slash needed scholarships and didn’t get them and that is an unfair characterization.”
Taylor said he believes the lack of value placed on education combined with the “I won’t get it anyway” narrative is causing Black students to cheat themselves out of getting the financial aid they really need.
Now, he says, is the time for Black students and families to “look at the man in the mirror.”
“We will stand in line for hours for the new LeBrons. We will be in line to get a thousand Beyonce tickets,” Taylor said. “We will sit on the phone calling a radio station time and time again to win some prize, but we won’t spend two or three hours researching how to find money to pay for school and once we get into school we don’t want to spend the time to make sure that our grades are strong.”
Taylor said the same support that is shown for Black students who excel in athletics has to be shown for students who excel in the classroom as well. He said parent involvement in activities like mock trials, debate clubs and spelling bees has to be just as great as the involvement with basketball tournaments and football games.
With an educational system that has already been proven to work against Black boys and underfunded schools in predominantly Black districts, Black parents have an even heavier responsibility to keep their students focused and inspired on an academic level.
In today’s society the competition doesn’t begin after a student is accepted into college, it begins well before they even leave the halls of high school. In order for Black students to compete not only for acceptance letters but for scholarships as well, it will “simply take hard work—hard work and grit,” Taylor added.
Matthews said that the Jackie Robinson Foundation is currently accepting applications online and wants to send an urgent message to students to “please complete the application!”
Current scholarships provided through the Thurgood Marshall College Fund can be found here.