Photo by Moses Malik Roldan on Unsplash

Welcome to The Intersection! My name is Naomi Harris, and this is my Open Campus newsletter that examines race and equity in higher education. Are you new here? Sign up for future editions!

HBCU Spotlight
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A monthly newsletter that explores issues facing historically Black colleges and universities and follows the work of our HBCU Student Journalism Network. By Naomi Harris.

The past couple of weeks have been filled with higher education news. After months of speculation, President Biden announced a plan to provide some relief for student-loan debt.

Colleges are starting a new academic year. But they’re entering a third fall with the pandemic looming. And, at the same time, concerns about dwindling enrollments are still going strong.

How does race play a role in all of this?

I talked with college leaders and experts to hear more.

Student loans and the racial wealth gap

Even though debt could be a good investment, student loans have proven to be challenging to overcome, says Nicole Smith, the chief economist at Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce. In many cases, they become a long-term financial burden.

As a result, the age of 25 used to be considered adulthood as young people would buy cars, start a family or even purchase their own home. But that age has slowly gotten older to 27 or early 30s in order to accommodate for the debt owed, Smith says.

“Once you remove those debt payments, then individuals will be able to do the things that normal people do at that particular age — mostly start accumulating wealth of their own.”

That only adds to historical inequities, she says. Home ownership for Black people has long been thwarted by redlining, discrimination, and bias. Now, student loans have been added to the pile — and Black borrowers are disproportionately affected by student debt.

Data collected by the Education Data Initiative reveal the ways racial disparities show up in college loans.

In general, the average borrower owes $28,950. But the report by Education Data Initiative showed that Black college graduates owe an average of $25,000 more in student loans than white college graduates. American Indian and Alaska Native student borrowers owe the highest monthly payments.

Student loans also add stress to personal decisions, as the data showed Hispanic and Latino borrowers were most likely to delay getting married and having children due to student loans.

The student debt forgiveness plan by the Biden administration could begin to tackle some of the disparities within college affordability, says Denise Smith, a senior fellow at Century Foundation, a progressive think tank.

First, it increases the debt relief to $20,000 for Pell Grant recipients. Among students who are eligible for Pell Grants, 58 percent are Black, 51 percent are American Indian or Alaskan Native, and 47 percent are Hispanic.

The president’s plan also could have a significant impact for families who are low income and rely on Parent PLUS loans to help pay for college, Smith says.

  • Interested in reading more about the history of Parent PLUS and where it is now? Check out my newsletter that dives into the program and the people most impacted by it.

“This is a great first step in really helping to start to close and narrow the racial wealth gap.”

Student interest for HBCUs

Xavier University of Louisiana hosts an orientation event for students. Photo Credit: Xavier University of Louisiana

Xavier University of Louisiana hosts an orientation event for students. Photo Credit: Xavier University of Louisiana

As students head back to campus, colleges across the country are worrying about how to get more of them to come.

Since 2019, college enrollment has declined by 1.4 million students. Some institutions have been hit particularly hard, like community colleges.

But one group — historically and predominantly Black colleges — is seeing a surge in interest from students.

Reports also show students are not only applying more to HBCUs but some are following through to enrollment. From 2018 to 2021, applications to predominantly Black colleges increased by 30 percent, according to the New York Times. An analysis by the Washington Post found that enrollment at 10 HBCUs for the fall semester of 2021 exceeded pre-pandemic numbers.

It is not just one moment or event that college leaders say brought change. So much has happened — divisive elections, tragic deaths of Black men and women at the hands of police, heated political discourse about what can be taught about race in class — students are seeking a place of belonging, said Rochelle Ford, Dillard University’s president.

“We were established to educate Black and brown people, to uplift Black and brown people,” Ford says. “There is renewed interest in attending a school that was meant for us, that uplifts us, and has a legacy of producing leaders for America and the global community.”

At Xavier University of Louisiana officials started to see student interest grow in 2016, says its president, Reynold Verret. Between the fall of 2016 and fall 2021, the university’s enrollment increased by 20%, to 3,604 students.

Beyond a safe space, the HBCU offers students a chance to thrive without justifying their worth, Verret said. For example, some students have “gaps in their armor” and so early on the university offers various student services to improve their chances of success.

An alum from the university wrote about his own experiences at Xavier before becoming a surgeon. His first year, he struggled in his chemistry class, Verret said. His professor noticed and recommended he attend study sessions every day.

“He thought he knew but basically what he was given was a meal without vitamins,” Verret said. The school’s tradition is to look out for students who need extra help and figuring out where they can best get support, he said.

Parents tend to talk about the right environment, a place that can take care of their children, says Monica White, the director of recruitment, admissions, and programming at Dillard. Students also look for a place that allows them to thrive.

“Can they see themselves as a part of the community in which they’re going to be going to school — and they excel in that environment? Are they going to be a name or are they going to be just another number in a seat in a classroom?” White says.

With the pandemic causing disruption after disruption, White also saw an opportunity to reach more students. Going online allowed for virtual meetings and sessions at college fairs that used to require travel and more time and planning, she said.

The typical recruitment cycle from September through late November can now look like 15 virtual visits a week with all different types of students.

“It allowed us to tap into markets that we would not typically recruit in — in a physical sense,” she said. For example, a counselor in Philadelphia reached out because a group of interested students wanted to learn more about the school. “It allowed us to broaden our scope a little bit more.”

Recommended readings

Can free tuition help address high dropout and low college enrollment rates among Native students? Emma Hall reported on the University of California system’s new approach and what it can mean for students. Check out her story published by NPR.

A study found that HBCUs were more successful in mitigating COVID-19 on campus compared with non-HBCUs. Pearl Stewart at Diverse: Issues in Higher Education talked to administrators to hear how the colleges addressed the virus and what it means for the fall.

Student debt can lead to retention problems in the education system, especially among Black teachers. Molly Minta at Mississippi Today talked with teachers to learn how student debt relief could help address the teacher shortage.

Thanks for reading!

I’d like to hear from you. Share your stories, tips, and perspectives by sending me an email. Reach out to me at

Open Campus national reporter covering the intersection of race and higher education.