Why many in the HBCU community celebrated Biden's student loan forgiveness

Advocates say they were key in shaping the White House's plan.

Video byDara Elasfar
September 26, 2022, 1:04 PM

Forty-three million borrowers could benefit from President Joe Biden's student debt forgiveness plan this fall, he has said, and the sweeping decision excites many within the historically Black colleges and universities (HBCU) community.

That includes 2021 Wilberforce University graduate Cleopatra Melton, who carries roughly $50,000 in debt. The relief from having those loans forgiven won't just benefit her, she feels -- it will set up future success for her adult children, each of whom is tens of thousands of dollars in debt themselves.

"It's always been like a guilt of mine that I wasn't able to help my children and that they had to acquire their own federal loan debt for going to college," Melton, a 47-year-old accountant who works remotely in North Carolina, told ABC News, adding, "If all that can be given at this time is between 10 and $20,000, depending on where you fall, I'm grateful for the opportunity."

The Biden administration will forgive up to $10,000 in federal loan debt and up to $20,000 each for the 27 million American borrowers who have received Pell grants, which are specifically for low-income borrowers. The plan was widely lauded by Democrats and many borrowers but drew criticism from Republicans as excessive and unfair. Some experts said the program will also not address larger issues of affordability, and it faces possible legal challenges.

"These actions build on my administration's effort to make college more affordable in the first place," Biden said in an address last month about the debt forgiveness program. "It includes unprecedented investments -- nearly $6 billion in historic Black colleges and universities," he said.

HBCUs enroll nearly 10% of all Black undergraduates and promote the majority of Black doctors, lawyers and judges, according to United Negro College Fund (UNCF) and the Thurgood Marshall College Fund. Despite their influential role in promoting social and economic mobility within the Black community, Southern Methodist University Associate Professor of Education Policy Dominique Baker said, HBCUs have historically been underfunded and overlooked by the White House through the years.

PHOTO: Dayja, Samaiyah, and Cleopatra Melton at Samaiyah Melton's graduation from Kent State University.
Dayja, Samaiyah, and Cleopatra Melton at Samaiyah Melton's graduation from Kent State University.
Courtesy Cleopatra Melton

A recent Ithaka S+R report suggested that HBCUs were more likely than their peer institutions to significantly increase their debt during both the Great Recession of 2007 and the COVID-19 pandemic, in order to address budgetary gaps. In addition, the report also found that high-borrowing HBCUs that are financially strained may have been forced to borrow even more during the pandemic to maintain their operations.

Roughly 70% of HBCU students are Pell-eligible, and Melton said she would not have graduated summa cum laude with a bachelor's degree in organizational management last year without the grants. Advocates for the HBCU community -- and for Black graduates and student loan borrowers more broadly -- were crucial in both pushing Biden to adopt a loan forgiveness program, as he had promised on the campaign trail, and pushing him to expand the eligibility up to $20,000 for Pell recipients, according to the UNCF's Lodriguez Murray, who worked on advancing and changing the scope of the plan.

Murray, senior vice president of federal policy and government at the minority education organization, told ABC News that the Biden administration's forgiveness decision "disproportionately" impacted HBCU students and institutions in a positive way.

Loan forgiveness will directly enrich the HBCU community, Murray said.

"We've always been laser-focused on identifying the students and graduates that need the most relief by the Pell grant program because it was a very easy and existing socioeconomic standard," Murray said. "Nobody saw the other [Pell grant] layer happening, and we believe that if it had not been for our voice in so many rooms that would be less likely to have happened."

PHOTO: Lodriguez V. Murray speaking at 2019 UNCF fundraiser in Columbus, OH.
Lodriguez V. Murray speaking at 2019 UNCF fundraiser in Columbus, OH.
Courtesy Lodriguez V. Murray

Murray also said the UNCF spoke with policy and decision-makers, including the secretary of education, in private meetings and virtual calls up until the weekend before the president's decision in August. In mentioning racial equity and Pell in those meetings, the education advocate said he suggested the administration could ensure the forgiveness plan included students from lower income backgrounds. Other groups made similar efforts: The NAACP's policy team sent data on the racial wealth gap to the administration in the weeks leading up to forgiveness program's unveiling, according to the youth and college division national director, Wisdom Cole.

"We just made sure we were consistently sharing those key messages and working with many of our research partners to make sure that they [the White House] are getting the most up to date information," Cole said.

A source familiar with the White House's thinking told ABC News that the president carefully considered "all arguments" on loan forgiveness, together with the Department of Education, and in the end they made their decision to keep his campaign promise and deliver what the source called targeted relief to borrowers who need it most.

"Making the $20,000 for Pell grant students -- double the amount of the regular relief for qualifying individuals -- was groundbreaking," Murray said. "It's important to note that this is relief that will happen for students, not necessarily relief for institutions, but the institutions and the students are inextricably linked. And that's because our students tend to be disproportionately low-income students."

Melton lauded the plan for erasing debt for Black women HBCU graduates like her, who matriculated from the first private historically Black college that was founded, owned and operated by people of African descent. Black women are the most likely of any gender group to use student loans, with a quarter of them holding student debt, according to data from the Census Bureau and the American Association of University Women.

Black graduates across the board constituted the highest percentage of borrowers to finance higher education in 2020, according to the Student Borrower Protection Center. When the government's forgiveness application opens in October, Melton's debt will substantially decrease.

In Ohio, Wilberforce University President Dr. Elfred Anthony Pinkard said he was also elated to hear how those at HBCUs will benefit from the program. More than 90% of his students are Pell-eligible and he notes they now have a "runway" to an achievable financial future.

PHOTO: Dr. Elfred Anthony Pinkard, president of Wilberforce University.
Dr. Elfred Anthony Pinkard, president of Wilberforce University.
Wilberforce University
PHOTO: Associate Professor Dominique Baker, Ph.D, teaches in the Department of Education Policy and Leadership at Southern Methodist University's Simmons School of Education and Human Development.
Associate Professor Dominique Baker, Ph.D, teaches in the Department of Education Policy and Leadership at Southern Methodist University's Simmons School of Education and Human Development.
Southern Methodist University

"Just imagine the generations of students who are considering a university education and cannot afford it," Pinkard said. "It allows for this population of students that are especially challenged on the onset, with not having enough resources, to pursue a college education," he said.

But the student loan system in place could also use some restructuring, according to Pinkard. He believes the conversation should be centered on the core issue of affordability. He suggested that while loan forgiveness is a good thing for higher education overall, it should only be "the beginning" for HBCUs.

"We serve this particular population -- those students who are often marginal in terms of their ability to pay -- so I think that HBCUs certainly should be at the table," he said. "I think that given the opportunity, we can bring a valuable perspective to solving this problem."

Chronicle of Higher Education reporter Oyin Adedoyin told ABC News that one of the largest hurdles Black students face when considering college is costs and incurring debt, especially for Parent PLUS federal loan recipients, which provides money to parents for their children to attend college in addition to financial aid packages.

Melton, the mom and recent grad, understands the long-term impact that student debt can have on Black graduates, She said that a portion of the debt her own kids incurred came from Parent PLUS loans, which will soon be eligible for forgiveness. Baker, the policy professor, echoed how including Parent PLUS loans was a critical component of the White House's plan.

PHOTO: Oyin Adedoyin is a reporter at The Chronicle of Higher Education who covers campus cultures.
Oyin Adedoyin is a reporter at The Chronicle of Higher Education who covers campus cultures.
Courtesy Oyin Adedoyin

A report from The Century Foundation found the Parent PLUS money is one of the "riskiest federal student loan options." They come with heavier interest rates and about one in five Black parents use them to send their children to HBCUs, according to the foundation.

"[There's] no question that the Parent PLUS piece is essential for this to actually make real changes for people who attended HBCUs," Baker said. "We need to be talking more about people in their 30s, in their 40s, in their 50s, in their 60s, who are students themselves, who have taken out loans, who also have children who are going to college with Parent PLUS loans. We're creating intergenerational ties of debt to education and that's just not cool."

As HBCU alumni and advocates look toward the future, the loan forgiveness also gives current and incoming students a glimmer of hope for what can be achieved with fewer financial burdens. Howard University NAACP Vice President Dezmond Rosier will soon start borrowing for school this fall at U.S. News & World Report's second-ranked HBCU.

"I know with community coordination and conversation we can get this student debt canceled," Rosier told ABC News before his financial aid meeting earlier this month.

PHOTO: Howard University Sophomore Dezmond Rosier attends the NAACP 2022 National Conference on July 18th, 2022, in Atlantic City, N.J.
Howard University Sophomore Dezmond Rosier attends the NAACP 2022 National Conference on July 18th, 2022, in Atlantic City, N.J.
Courtesy Dezmond Rosier

The second-year student had his freshman year paid off through academic scholarships and aid but doesn't expect to receive the funding this year. He is a Pell-eligible borrower who wants to see more loan forgiveness to encourage his 15-year-old brother and the next generation of prospective college students.

"Dec. 31 is when the payments for student debt continue but what about after that?" Rosier said. "What about that 20,000 that is still left, that 40,000, that 50,000 -- there's still going to be a fight to continue to push for cancellation of all student debt."

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