According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the percentage of African Americans who enrolled in college has slightly increased in the last few decades. Back in 1974, African American students accounted for ten percent of all college students around the country, and by 2015, that percentage has increased to 14 percent. However, despite this increase in enrollment, African American students do not have the same graduation rates as other people of color. The Chronicle of Higher Education reports that only 46 percent of African American students at public colleges and 57 percent at private colleges complete their degree programs — which is lower than any other demographic in college.
There are several financial and social challenges — such as poverty and bias from peers and educators — that can make it more difficult for African Americans to enter college and complete their degrees. This page outlines some of those challenges, but it also shares information on how students can address the financial issues through different aid options. In addition, we can connect readers to resources that African American students can take advantage of.
Unique Challenges for African American Students
Financial Challenges and Student Debt
If your family lives in poverty, it's no surprise that college seems out of reach. However, it's important not to let this stop you. More and more, students from poor households of different racial backgrounds are attending college to create a better future for themselves and their families. According to the Pew Research Center, in 2016, 20 percent of undergraduate students came from poor families, compared to 12 percent in 1996.
In order to overcome poverty and find a way to finance their higher education, students may elect to take out loans. However, this can lead to a long-term cycle of debt that disproportionately affects African Americans — even when they are eligible for needs-based grants. Statistics from Demos show that 84 percent of African American and low-income students who qualified for Pell Grants took out loans to pay for their education, even if they were attending lower-cost public institutions.
Challenges of being First-Gen College Students
Many African American students are the first in their families to go to college, which comes with its own set of unique challenges. Since many of these first-generation college students come from poor families, they may not have attended schools that were able to adequately prepare them for higher education. Not having access to a suitably challenging high school curriculum can make it difficult for these students to adjust to the rigors of college.
Becoming the first member of a family to attend college may even cause some familial challenges. Students' families may believe that it is arrogant for them to get a higher education when the rest of the family has not. This means these students have a lack of support at home and feel like they have nowhere to turn when they experience issues at school. On top of that, first-generation college students may also feel judgment from other students who have family members with degrees. This stigma can easily affect students' self-esteem and confidence.
Online Education for African American Students
Online schools can be a good alternative for African American students because they are often less costly than their traditional counterparts, which can help lower the amount of loan debt that these students have to pay back after graduating.
In addition, students who are not on campus on a regular basis may not experience the same kind of racial bias or classist judgment in an online classroom. Whether there was bias or judgment or not, the little bit of distance given by an online class can help students feel more at ease and focus more thoroughly on their studies.
Programs and Initiatives for African American Students
Although African American college students face several challenges, there is help available that can provide the guidance they need to be successful. The following are some of the programs and initiatives designed to help these students with their college journey.
- INROADS. INROADS is dedicated to creating the next generation of African American leaders by providing academic instruction and guidance throughout the school year, as well as internships during the summer.
- Martin Luther King, Jr. Papers Project. The Martin Luther King, Jr. Papers Project allows college juniors and seniors to participate in fellowship programs designed to give them experience with scholarly research.
- African-American Female Initiative. This initiative, which is provided to students at the University of Louisville, offers academic support to first-year or transfer female African American students. The program provides coaching from the school's staff and events that feature tips for educational and career success.
- African-American Male Initiative. This initiative through the University of Arkansas at Little Rock offers mentoring to the school's African American male students. In addition, students can participate in workshops to help them develop academic skills, as well as social events where they can network with each other.
Historically Black Colleges and Universities
Historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) are defined as black colleges and universities that were opened before 1964 in order to meet the higher education needs of African Americans. Given this classification through the Higher Education Act of 1965, these colleges were first designed to fill an education gap when opportunities for African Americans to attend college were few and far between.
As of 2019, there are over 100 HBCUs in the United States and many of them — like Bowie State University, Howard University, Tuskegee University, and Hampton University — offer online degree programs to their students.
Benefits of an HBCU
HBCUs can be a more affordable option for students who come from low-income families. In fact, according to the United Negro College Fund, in the 2013-2014 school year, HBCUs charged tuition rates that were 26 percent lower than the average rate for other four-year colleges.
In addition, these schools allow students to learn among others who have similar experiences and concerns, and connect with professors who have backgrounds like to their own. This benefit is magnified because of the small class sizes these colleges and universities typically offer.
Also, people who attend HBCUs often get to learn more about the contributions made by members of the black diaspora, which can help to deepen their understanding of the African American experience and instill a sense of personal pride.
Scholarships and Grants for African American Students
- Jackie Robinson Foundation Scholarship Program. The scholarships available from the Jackie Robinson Foundation are for students who have demonstrated participation in community service, as well as financial need. Students can receive up to $30,000 for four years through this program, as well as access to mentoring services and internship and job placement.
- Ron Brown Scholar Program. The Ron Brown Scholar Fund offers an award of $10,000 per year to African American high school seniors with leadership potential. In order to qualify, applicants must demonstrate a high academic performance, community service and financial need.
- United Negro College Fund. The United Negro College Fund offers several scholarships for full-time African American students attending a four-year college or university.
- NACME Scholars (Block Grant) Program. This grant is available to engineering students who demonstrate high academic achievement.
- Page Education Foundation Grants: Minnesota students who have displayed high academic achievement, as well as participated in community service projects involving young children, are eligible to receive this award.
Organizations and Other Resources for African American Students
African American students can take advantage of services from organizations, as well as other resources, in order to succeed in college. The following section describes some of these resources.
Resources for African American Students
- Applying for Scholarships and Grants. This page on the United Negro College Fund's website provides advice on how to find and successfully apply for scholarships and grants.
- The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education. Students can read articles about topics related to African Americans and education on this site.
- The HBCU Foundation, Inc. This organization has news and other resources about the HBCU experience.
Resources for First-Generation Students
- Breaking Down Barriers: First-Generation College Students and College Success. This article from The League for Innovation in the Community College outlines the challenges that first-generation college students face and what schools are doing to address them.
- First in the Family: Advice About College From First-Generation Students. This site includes anecdotes from people who are first-generation college students and includes guidance on how to handle it.
- I'm First!. This organization provides helpful information and services to first-generation college students.
Finding Resources on Google and Other Search Engines
Students who are looking for funding opportunities for their college education can find many options by using the right search terms. The following are some of the keywords that African American students can use to find scholarships and grants.
- Black scholarships
- Black grants
- Grants for African-American students
- Scholarships for African-American students
- Financial aid for African-American students
- Scholarships for black students
- Grants for black students
- Financial aid for black students
- Scholarships for black men
- Scholarships for black women
- Grants for black women