Missouri HBCUs use federal relief funds to clear pandemic-related student debt

By: - September 27, 2021 12:46 pm

Members of the Class of 2025 at Harris-Stowe State University participate in the Convocation and Rite of Passage Ceremony, an annual tradition that symbolizes HSSU’s commitment to the newest members of its learning community. The ceremony took place on on Aug. 30, 2021. (Photo courtesy of Harris-Stowe State University.)

Harris-Stowe State University junior De’Ketra Tatum remembers listening to a lecture in February 2020 about what could happen if the coronavirus hit the United States.

A month later, she got an email saying that all students had to leave the campus. 

“It was terrifying,” she said. “It took a lot for me to stay calm and be able to make sure that I’m able to balance my emotions about the pandemic, while still trying to be a scholar first.”

She went home to Memphis, Tenn., where her father works hard to help put her and her siblings through college. She’s the first of the eight siblings to move out of state to study.

This summer, Tatum was among about 300 students at Harris-Stowe — an historically Black university (HBCU) near downtown St. Louis — who got a call saying that the student debt she incurred during the pandemic months will be canceled. 

“It just really helped out my family a lot,” she said, “that way my dad doesn’t have to worry about coming out of pocket so much to assist me.”

Missouri’s two HBCUs — Harris Stowe and Lincoln University — are among those across the country that came together and decided to use federal relief funding to cancel out student debt. Leaders found that balances were keeping students from re-enrolling in the fall semester, and they didn’t want the pandemic to further impact their students’ lives. 

“Paying for college has long been a point of concern for far too many of our students, but even more so as we deal with the economic issues the pandemic has caused,” said John Moseley, interim president of Lincoln University. 

At the onset of the pandemic, HBCU leaders leaned on each other more than they ever have before to get advice on COVID guidelines and safety, said  LaTonia Collins Smith, interim president for Harris-Stowe. They shared protocols and ideas on holding classes, COVID testing, school athletics and many other things, she said. 

Out of that camaraderie came the idea of loan-forgiveness.

“It also put us in a place where you feel as though I’m not alone,” she said. “I’m not the only institution who has this problem or is trying to figure out a solution for this particular issue.”

This summer, Collins Smith noticed that their fall enrollment was low because some students had incurred an “unsurmountable burden” during the pandemic, she said. The past year had been particularly hard on minority communities, and tacking on more student debt was not in the cards for many families.

“We thought about: how could we best help our students to persist?” she said. 

It was an issue that other HBCUs across the country were facing as well, and leaders came together to talk about using federal relief funding to help debt cancellation initiatives. Through the three stimulus packages, Congress directed at least $5 billion to the institutions, according to the U.S. Department of Education.

At Wilberforce University, an HBCU in Ohio, leaders announced at a commencement ceremony in May that it was clearing the debts of all the graduates of 2020 and 2021.

Harris-Stowe will eliminate about $330,000 in student debt resulting from the 2020-2021 academic year. On average, it’s about $1,076 per student.

Lincoln University, located in Jefferson City, forgave $1.5 million in student balances for more than 900 students. 

“Our founders used the funds they had to provide the opportunity of education back in 1866,” Moseley said. “We are doing the same for our students in 2021, thanks to the CARES Act.”

Black graduates have an average of $52,000 in student loan debt, about $25,000 more on average than the debt of their white counterparts, according to data from the National Center for Education Statistics. 

The pandemic is now providing a way to give HBCU students — who are often first-generation college students from low-income families — a chance to enter their next chapter of life without the enormous burden of debt, Collins Smith said.

And it definitely provided incentive for students to re-enroll this fall, she said. 

At Harris-Stowe, the students didn’t have to apply for the aid. The only thing they had to do was say “yes.” Collins Smith said the calls and emails to students were often met with disbelief. 

“There were a lot of emails like, ‘Eh, are you serious? Is this actually happening?” Collins Smith said. “So just the amount of happiness and gratitude from students about being able to have that relief, and not having to stop out of school, that within itself was very priceless.”

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Rebecca Rivas
Rebecca Rivas

Rebecca Rivas covers civil rights, criminal justice and immigration. She has been reporting in Missouri since 2001, most recently as senior reporter and video producer at the St. Louis American, the nation's leading African-American newspaper.