Working hurts finances of Blacks working way through college

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WASHINGTON (NNPA) – More than 60 percent of Black students could receive greater financial aid for college through the Pell grant program, if they were enrolled full-time, according to a new report by the National Urban League.

The report, which focused on the profile of a typical Black student and the uphill battle they fight to get to college and earn a degree, found that 62 percent of Black students receive funding for college through the Pell grant program, but many more would qualify if they didn’t have to work supporting themselves, their families or young children.

Sixty-five percent of Black students are independent, compared to 49 percent of White students.

“While 62 percent of African American students receive some Pell support, only 14 percent of independent African Americans receive the maximum Pell Grant award,” stated the report. During the 2011-2012 school year, maximum Pell grant awards ranged between $4,500-$5,500.

According to the report, Black students are more likely to come from low-income families than their White peers. Black students are less likely to receive family contributions, which increases the likelihood of  receiving higher Pell Grant awards.

A 2012 report on Pell grant recipients by the John W. Pope Center for Higher Education Policy, said that Blacks account for 12 percent of Pell recipients, while 63 percent of funds allocated to the grant program went to White students.

In fact, the Pope Center report found that the typical Pell recipient was White, female, 25 years-old, works part-time, is financially independent and is going to school full-time.

Yet, the independent status of Black students often leaves them unable to attend college full-time and makes it even harder for them to graduate.

“The biggest distinction that we found is that most African American graduates are independent or non-traditional students compared to other races and ethnicities,” said Susie Saavedra, a senior legislative director at the National Urban League’s Washington Bureau.

Saavedra, who co-authored the report, said that the distinction between independent students and dependent students is significant because there are important differences that affect the way each group matriculates through college.

“Independent African American undergraduates are more likely than others to be single parents, 48 percent, compared to 23 percent of whites, 34 percent of Latinos, 36 percent of Native Americans and 19 percent of Asians,” stated the report.

More than 40 percent of independent Black students attend two-year schools and about 1 in 4 independent Black students are enrolled in bachelor’s degree programs. In contrast, more than half of all dependent Black students are enrolled in bachelor’s degree programs.

Saavedra said that Black students often enter college so academically unprepared that they’re using their valuable Pell grant dollars to pay for remedial courses that don’t count towards a degree, further limiting their financial resources.

Despite their own constrained financial resources, historically Black colleges and universities, often graduate a disproportionate amount of Black students, compared to predominately White institutions.

Although, historically Black colleges and universities, account for less than 3 percent of all post-secondary institutions they graduate almost 18 percent of the Black students that earn bachelor’s degrees.

Marybeth Gasman, a professor of higher education in the Graduate School of Education at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia said that the cooperative-learning environment found at many HBCUs rather than a cutthroat competitive environment and that ends up supporting students.

“If you have students that are mentoring each other instead of constantly trying to one-up each other, it changes the environment and it makes it more academically and socially supportive,” said Gasman.

She said that racial incidents that occur at majority White institutions often chip away at the psyche of Black students.

“Within the HBCU environment there is a belief in the potential and the success of Black students, that right their can make an enormous difference,” Gasman explained.

Saavedra said that even with reforms to the Pell grant program, financial aid alone is not enough to retain and graduate low-income and underserved students.

“Instead, a growing body of research suggests that when financial aid is paired with wrap-around services or personalized approach to higher education we see improved retention among low-income students,” said Saavedra.

Researchers recommended building learning communities to strengthen connections between students, increasing access to social safety net programs to provide students with comprehensive financial support, enhancing career advisement. Students also need greater financial counseling to help them understand the real cost of college and summer bridge programs to prepare them for the coursework.

Saavedra said that policymakers and advocates must find better ways to serve non-traditional students.

“Many of our recommendations offer a proactive approach that move the conversation beyond the goal of college access to providing the necessary support and resources to address the factors highlighted [in the report],” said Saavedra. “We believe these strategies will help us realize the larger goal of college completion, upward mobility, and economic empowerment for all underserved students.”

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