Back in October 2019—in a version of the world that is very different from the version we live in now—my nephew, along with probably a hundred other prospective students, visited the campus of Morehouse College, in Atlanta, Ga., during our annual homecoming weekend. On the Friday of that week, my nephew sat in on various panels intended to offer a glimpse into what life would be like as a Man of Morehouse (what we call our matriculating students), what life has been like for those of who have graduated into becoming Morehouse Men, and how much Morehouse impacted our lives post-graduation. It was an impressive advertising program. Even I, a person who graduated from the institution in 2001—nearly 20 years ago—felt inspired and motivated; why would anybody want their black boys to go anywhere else?
At the same time that these prospective students were listening to stories about the Morehouse experience, there was a financial aid panel for the parents and guardians. Nearly all of that goodness was deflated as soon as the costs of attendance, especially for first-year students living on campus, would be compared to what Morehouse could provide in scholarship money should a student qualify. When I was a student, Morehouse offered tuition scholarships as well as scholarships that covered the entire cost of attendance. According to what I heard, Morehouse pivoted to offering tiered financial scholarships that, I believe, topped out at $25,000 per year. With a financial burden of nearly $50,000 per year, the highest amount Morehouse could offer for even the most promising students was right around half the cost of attendance, and not even the full cost of tuition. Morehouse College was probably moving itself to the top of some students’ lists (if it wasn’t already there) at the same time parents and guardians were coming to a very stark realization: their students would very likely need to strongly consider other alternatives.
Put a pin in this.
Recently, it was reported that the number of students attending HBCUs (historically black colleges and universities) during the 2018-2019 academic year (289,134) was at its lowest since 2001 (289,934).
There were many factors reported as to why we might be seeing a decline in enrollment. But in my head, chief among them is cost; especially as we hear more and more about students leaving school with ridiculous student loan payments and we continuously tell rising college students to minimize that debt as much as possible. It almost seems like you can’t have it both ways. Or, you’re either wealthy enough to afford to go where you want, be it Morehouse College, Spelman College or Harvard, or you take real stock of what your options are based on the financial resources and decisions in front of you.
At roughly $50,000 a year, you truly have to ask yourself the question: Is potentially owing almost $100,000 in student loans (assuming your grades are good enough to get the maximum $25,000 per year that Morehouse can provide and you stay on campus all four years) worth it to attend Morehouse? Even if you aren’t going to stay on campus for all four years, the cost (again, assuming that you got the maximum Morehouse has to offer) would still put you in the position to need to come up with an additional $40-$50,000 to live off-campus, eat and get from point A to point B. Oh, and buy books. If you’re not from Atlanta and thus don’t necessarily have a place to stay for free, these are real questions.
They are questions I’d imagine most students and their parents have to address, even as they’re listening to other students talk about exactly why they should come to Morehouse. I’d bet that most of us left with a stronger sense of self than we showed up with. If I had those same financial concerns today, though, would I still go? I don’t know.
Which brings me back to my nephew. When we started having college conversations we talked (and I talked with his mother about) his college choices. He was going to apply to Morehouse and Howard University, the University of Alabama, the University of Alabama-Birmingham and Tuskegee University, among others. He did what he was supposed to do. His GPA was 3.8. He took his ACT (even took it the final time on the day of Morehouse College’s homecoming tailgate during the morning and came out to see the experience in the afternoon) and got a 30. He’s a state-qualifying track athlete.
When I was at Morehouse, I do believe those scores and GPA would have been enough to get him at least tuition, room and board. But in this climate’s financial situation, it was enough for $25,000 (most of tuition). The same was true at Howard University. According to Tuskegee’s website, he should effectively qualify for his entire schooling to be covered but not only has he not heard about financial aid, he hasn’t even heard if he was accepted. He was accepted into every school he applied to and the University of Alabama gave him their maximum amount for students with his credentials. In fact, he got a financial offer from every school, some more than others, but Morehouse College and the University of Alabama were his frontrunners. He’d visited both campuses and he loved the little things he was seeing about Alabama. Morehouse is Morehouse; I went there and he saw enough to let him know that if they offered him enough, it was a slam-dunk. But he not only found out he got accepted into Morehouse later than everywhere else, the financial aid offer came substantially later and wasn’t enough.
It turns out that over time, he had some realization that he wasn’t likely to get enough money from any school (though again, still haven’t heard from Tuskegee) to cover the entire cost of attendance, so he was going to have to consider the financial burden plus the pros and cons of schools (to him). When the dust settled, and even before he told me, I could tell that he had decided to go to Alabama. If Morehouse had come with more money—we’d been trying to talk to the athletics department but those convos proved fruitless—he’d be gracing 830 Westview Drive, SW, in the fall (or whenever we get back to some state of normalcy). As it turns out though, he will owe Alabama substantially less while being on a campus he loves with some folks he knows from school. He did what he was supposed to do and he made a choice that he is happy with. I’m happy for him but also sad that Morehouse College, another HBCU, lost a viable, wonderful student to carry on our traditions.
Be clear, I don’t blame Morehouse College. The school can offer what it can offer. Times are different; financial resources mixed with declining enrollment become more scarce and, well, schools have to face real decisions. But so do families. I have no idea who the students are who are paying to attend Morehouse nowadays or if people are willing to take out the amount of student loans necessary to do so. My nephew was looking for additional scholarship money but many he found also required him to have already made a decision on the school he was attending and he didn’t want to commit to a more expensive option without knowing if he and his mother would be able to cover those losses.
But if students like my nephew, who actively want to attend our HBCUs and who are quality candidates are having to make the decisions to go elsewhere with money on the table because it’s just not enough, what is happening to students who don’t have the grades and test scores for scholarships but gain admittance?
I don’t know the answers, and ultimately I’m asking questions that I don’t have to answer right now. But one day my kids will be thinking about college and unless I’m rich, financial considerations will be a big part of the discussion. I hope that I don’t have to watch my legacy at Morehouse (or Spelman or Howard) never get off the ground because it’s more cost-efficient and just simply makes more sense for my kids to go elsewhere.
With my nephew, we lost one. I hope this isn’t how we lose the rest.