Tips for African American Students to Make College Attainable

Tim Cook and Karen Dumas always knew that their two children, Kirby and Jason, would go to college. Those plans were cast in stone – even though recessions, career changes and other unpredictable factors occurred in this very nuclear family.

"I think that no matter who you are, the recession has taken a toll on everyone," said Dumas, a communications consultant, and Cook, a real estate broker.

"But college, for us, has always been about priorities," she said. "We've done well, and tuition has long been a part of our lives, because our children went to private schools. But we still had sticker shock."

Dumas and Cook, both professionally employed, are like many other African American families: They planned exhaustively to send their kids to universities without saddling their children with debt four years from now. But if the numbers are any indication, Blacks face unique challenges when it comes to paying for education.

The Challenges

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 2.9 million African Americans were enrolled in college in 2010 – a 1.7 million increase over 2000. However, the median income for Black Americans was $32,068 in 2010 – a 3.2 percent decline from 10 years earlier.


Additionally, there was a 27 percent rate of poverty in the African American community in 2010, versus 9.9 percent of Whites, according to an analysis by the Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy at the University of Michigan.

With those statistics, it's no wonder that only 18 percent of African Americans ages 25 or older earned a bachelor's degree or higher. College must seem, to some, like an unattainable goal. But the good news is that it doesn't have to be that way.

Eye on the Prize

A study by the Sallie Mae Fund and the United Negro College Fund's Patterson Institute indicated that a high number of African American young people would like to go to college, but are at a loss in terms of how to pay for it.

Cyekeia Lee, a financial aid officer with Wayne State University, works every day to find aid and funds for students, and she said students of all persuasions are unprepared for the reality of college costs.

"In an ideal situation, a family would be planning for a college education very early on in a child's life, but that doesn't always occur when you have other things to worry about," she said. "I always tell prospective students that come into my office that they can find ways to pay for college, but it's going to take some legwork."

The first stop for the typical student in need of assistance is filling out a Free Application for Federal Students Aid, or FAFSA, which will determine a student's eligibility for a Pell Grant. Pell grants differ from student loans in that they do not have to be paid back; however, students and parents must meet income guidelines.

But because college costs have increased, the days of a Pell Grant – which is capped annually at $5,500 per student – covering all students' needs while they're enrolled are fading fast.

Digging Deeper

"I tell African American students that they are going to need to investigate other funding sources," Lee said. "I tell them to get online; there are some search engines and websites that will provide scholarship information based on a student's circumstances. The biggest obstacle is that they're just not informed about what's available."

Indeed, a searching or reveals several scholarships with a wide swath of requirements. Some awards are geared towards individuals of certain racial or ethnic persuasions, or those who are the first member of their family to attend college. Others, provided by professional groups or businesses, are built around specific majors.

For example, the Central Intelligence Agency provides scholarships to minority applicants interested in pursuing careers with the agency; Microsoft seeks the same applicants in the field of computer science (see links two sections down).

Wilma Porter, the financial aid officer for Oakland Community College, said minority and low-income applicants should aggressively pursue scholarships.

"I think there's an impression that Pell can take care of everything," she said. "That's not always the case."

Porter also offers one more piece of advice because resources, especially in a bad economy, are not infinite.

"Start applying for financial aid early," she said. "Get your FAFSA in on time, and get scholarship applications in early. For the scholarships, there's information to provide and essays to write, and it all takes time and work."

Being Prepared

Kirby Cook, now 18, is attending Syracuse University, and her brother Jason will attend Xavier University in Cincinnati this fall.

Both are expensive schools that will have to paid for concurrently, so Dumas and Cook put many extras on hold. But that's not unusual, because both parents had planned for this situation.

"This is all about what's important, and Tim and I knew we didn't want our kids starting their lives with a huge debt," she said.

Dumas concedes that a key part of her family's college strategy was to save, even if it was only a little, over a long period of time – and to reiterate to her children how important it is to pursue college, even if it meant expensive toys would have to wait.

"Our philosophy has always been, if you have $300 tennis shoes on your feet, you need to have $3,000 in the bank," she said.

Show Me the Money

With college costs spiraling upward, and many families African American facing reduced income and higher expenses, college can seem like a long-shot in these difficult times. However, nonprofit groups, professional and business associations, businesses and the federal government offer a lifeline that can assist struggling students.

Although Pell Grants are the most widely recommended form of financial assistance, these local and national sources/organizations also have scholarship programs dedicated to making the dream of college a reality for African American students – and cover what Pell Grants do not

For additional scholarship information, students and parents can use the search engines, or, all of which generate scholarships based on factors including race/ethnic background, university of choice, majors, communities and many others.

  • McDonald's Scholarship Program. For high school seniors from disadvantaged communities who face limited access to educational and career opportunities.
  • Coca Cola Corp. For high school students and students currently enrolled in a two-year college.
  • Burger King Scholarship Program. Awards are $1,000; can be used towards expenses during the first year of college.
  • Jackie Robinson Foundation Scholarship. Awards are $6,000 per year and renewable.
  • Black College & University Scholarships. For students attending a Historically Black College or University that are a members of the IES consortium. A $2,000 scholarship will be awarded as follows: $1,500 credit toward the International Education of Student (IES) Program fee – PLUS $500 toward the purchase of an overseas airline ticket for the IES program. (800-995-2300)
  • Bonner Scholar Scholarships. For students who demonstrate community service as well as financial need. Award is $4,000 and renewable until graduation. Approximately 1,500 awards are granted to students from participating colleges.
  • Hope Scholarships & Lifetime Credits. Hope Scholarship for students in the first two years of college (or other eligible post-secondary training). Taxpayers will be eligible for a tax credit equal to 100 percent of the first $1,000 of tuition and fees and 50 percent of the second $1,000. Lifetime Learning Credits are for those beyond the first two years of college, or taking classes part-time to improve or upgrade their job skills.
  • Microsoft Scholarship Program. For student populations currently underrepresented in the field of computer science to pursue technical degrees. Minority applicants must belong to one of the following groups underrepresented in the software field: African American, Hispanic or Native American. Applicants must be enrolled full-time in a bachelor's degree program in the United States, Mexico or Canada.

100 Black Men of Greater Detroit

For students who've graduated from Detroit Public Schools and Detroit charter schools, 100 Black Men of Greater Detroit, Inc. also offers tuition assistance to those who are currently enrolled in a four-year college or university. Assistance is not to exceed $600 per calendar year, per qualifying student. In addition, GPA requirements are as follows:

  • Student must provide documentation that they earned a minimum cumulative GPA of 2.5 during their college tenure
  • Student must demonstrate promise of continued academic enrollment and achievement
  • Student must demonstrate need for tuition assistance
  • Student must commit to a minimum of six hours of documented community service within the current or next registered semester (either with a organization local to their college or university or the 100 Black Men of Greater Detroit).
  • Student must not be a dependent (child or step-child) of a current 100 Black Men of Greater Detroit member.

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