‘A no-brainer for HBCUs’: Why some schools are footing students’ bills

We are nearing year three of the coronavirus pandemic, meaning some college freshmen who’ve never stepped foot on campus are going back as juniors. And many of them are returning because of federal relief money. 

Miles College, a historically Black university based in Birmingham, Alabama, is one of more than 100 colleges and universities to reallocate federal CARES and Higher Education Emergency Relief Act funds to students for outstanding fees and practical resources like laptops, travel costs and books, according to the Washington Post. 

In fact, Miles College, in the midst of ever-growing COVID-19 cases, will likely see an enrollment increase for Fall 2021, said Michael A. Johnson, chief innovation officer and vice president of enrollment management. 

“Our retention rates have been tremendous since we’ve deployed this program,” he said. “Many of the barriers that would prevent students from completing their education have been removed.” 

These barriers first shot up in Spring 2020 when Miles College, like most institutions across the country, was forced to close because of the first wave of the virus. The college was no stranger to assisting students with more than an education, Johnson said, but the pandemic-related federal funds allowed university staff to increase student-supporting efforts. 

The CARES Act, which came in the first round of assistance, sent funds in three groups to colleges and universities: $12.5 billion went to schools who participate in the federal aid program; $1 billion went to minority-serving institutions like HBCUs, and about $350 million for colleges that have been hit hardest by the coronavirus, according to reporting from the Washington Post. 

During those first rounds of funding, Miles College set up an emergency funding application that students could fill out based on their need. Those funds would then be distributed to applicants within 48 hours, Johnson said. 

And Miles College is not alone in that decision. Tougaloo College in Mississippi, Shaw University in North Carolina and Norfolk State University in Virginia are among the two dozen universities that wiped their students’ bills clean are HBCUs. 

HBCUs, Johnson said, are acutely aware that the needs go beyond the cost of tuition and books. In May 2021, The Hope Center for College, Community and Justice, a non-profit that leads the #RealCollege movement, released a report on the needs of students at Texas colleges. They found that 55% of college students surveyed were housing insecure and 16% had experienced homelessness and in the prior 12 months. They also found that 43% of students were food insecure in the prior 30 days. 

“We are accustomed to providing additional support for students,” Johnson said. “Many of our students are first-generation college students and offering them an education means changing the trajectory for not just the students but their families. It’s a no-brainer for HBCUs to be investing even more in our students than other institutional types around the country.”

Read more: Student loan debt hits Black students hardest. Is help on the way?

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