Student-loan debt hobbles African-American grads’ success. We all can help fix this | Opinion

College president says that crippling student-loan debt can deprive black communities of economic growth and revitalization.
College president says that crippling student-loan debt can deprive black communities of economic growth and revitalization. Getty Images

A college education was once thought to be the key to upward mobility and the proverbial American Dream. Recent data now reveal that going to college and choosing a low-demand major can expose an individual to a social and economic nightmare. When coupling this trend with the overwhelming wealth, pay and employment gaps along racial lines, the need for financial support for students at Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) is even more pronounced.

As president of Florida Memorial University, South Florida’s only HBCU, the trillion-dollar student loan crisis requires all hands on deck.

A recent Wall Street Journal article, “The student-debt crisis hits hardest at historically black colleges,” explores the national student-loan crisis, which, according to the Federal Reserve, has reached more than $1.4 trillion in debt versus $779 billion in credit-card debt. This marks the first time student-loan debt has exceeded credit-card debt.

Of course, HBCUs feel the greatest impact.

Our students suffer economically, and their futures are compromised. The article reveals HBCU graduates acquire 32 percent more debt than graduates of other universities, which many economists diagnose as a recipe for lifelong debt. Recent Aspen Institute data notes that black respondents are more likely to experience consistent financial stress than their nonblack counterparts. Consequently, toxic debt becomes a barrier for those who can least afford it, depriving our entire community of the economic growth and revitalization it sorely needs and deserves.

It was encouraging that city of Miami Commissioner Keon Hardemon wisely addressed this persistent problem that plagues our own community. As the Miami Commission discussed the needs of Little Haiti as it relates to the Magic City Innovation District, Hardemon thrice implored the developer to establish a scholarship fund to offer students from his district the opportunity to attend FMU, thus providing more low-income students access to higher education, which will in turn raise the standard of revitalization in one of Miami’s most underserved communities.

At FMU, roughly 60 percent are first-generation college students from low-wealth households. Therein lies the hope: that these students will inspire and motivate others in their community to do the same, going forth to achieve careers, dreams and a better life than they previously thought achievable. Our mission to elevate the education of underserved students is paramount. Yet our purpose is not merely to raise the viable prospects and lifestyles of our students but to instill leadership, character, and service in the fiber of all FMU graduates. For more than 140 years, FMU has shaped young men and women who have become award-winning teachers, record-breaking pilots and top-notch healthcare professionals serving mostly in their communities. Our collective growth and evolution depend on their success.

The answer to creating communities that demonstrate real possibilities for the advancement of the underserved is within our reach. As a graduate of an HBCU who has faced those challenges, I know the struggles our students face by simply pursuing their dreams of empowerment and career opportunities. Each semester, nearly 400 of our undergrads contend with debt that stands in the way of their continuing education, forcing many to prematurely abandon their schooling. For seniors, the debt is a barrier to graduation.

As the 14th president of South Florida’s only HBCU, I invite South Floridians to support FMU Give Day on May 8, at GivingDay.fmuniv.edu, and help us disrupt the cycle of poverty and position our students for success. Together we can help them achieve their dreams.

Again, we need all hands on deck.

Dr. Jaffus Hardrick, Ed.D., is president of Florida Memorial University.