How Can More Black People Finish College?

Ask Dr. Lomax: It's not just about getting in but about getting that degree. These programs help.

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After sophomore year, the big obstacle to staying in college is financial: Money runs out. Federal and state governments provide a wide range of student financial aid, including grants and loans, by far the largest of which is the federal Pell Grant program, which will provide more than 9 million students with more than $36 billion in financial aid during the current fiscal year. UNCF itself awards more than 13,000 scholarships a year, worth more than $100 million. In fact, research by UNCF's Patterson Research Institute found that for every $5,000 in scholarship support awarded by UNCF to a freshman student, the likelihood of that student graduating increases by 8 percentage points.

Student loans must be an option for the foreseeable future. But we have to be careful, as individuals and as advocates, not to shift so much of the financial-aid burden from grants -- like Pell Grants and scholarship programs -- to loans, saddling families and students with debt they may never be able to repay.

Scholarship providers are starting to come to grips with financial shortfalls that occur midsemester, out of the normal scholarship cycle. In recent years, UNCF has addressed this challenge through two multimillion-dollar "just-in-time" scholarship programs. We started our Campaign for Emergency Student Aid four years ago to help students whose education was threatened by recession-connected economic misfortunes like layoffs and pay cuts. CESA has awarded more than $12 million in scholarships to more than 5,500 students.

And last year we established our $5 million "A Mind Is" Scholarship Award Program, its name echoing our famous motto, "A mind is a terrible thing to waste." "A Mind Is" awarded $2,000 scholarships to 2,500 students at our member institutions, targeting students with midterm needs whom other programs may have overlooked.

Like all our scholarship programs, CESA and "A Mind Is" are funded by corporations, foundations and individuals and must be replenished periodically to keep up with the needs of the students we serve. Much of UNCF's work is reaching out to people who care about education and asking them to invest in these programs, as well as in the students who depend on them.

The scope of these remedies underscores how important it is to help students who are already in college stay in college. Making our schools better will help a lot -- in the long term. 

But in the short term -- the time frame that we have to live in -- government policymakers and private philanthropy must not lose track of the students who are in college right now. They will be our next generation of teachers, doctors, scientists and businessmen and businesswomen. If we want them to be there for us when we need them, we have to invest today in better futures for them -- because better futures for them are better futures for us all.

Michael Lomax is president and CEO of United Negro College Fund. He is a contributing editor for The Root.

If you have any questions about the college experience, whether you are a student or a parent, please send them to Dr. Lomax at therootstaff@theroot.com.

The Root aims to foster and advance conversations about issues relevant to the black Diaspora by presenting a variety of opinions from all perspectives, whether or not those opinions are shared by our editorial staff.