Student-Aid Cuts Have Hurt Blacks, Study Finds
WASHINGTON--Cutbacks in federal grants to college students have disproportionately harmed students in historically black private institutions, and may have caused the recent reduction in the college-going rate among blacks, according to a study released here last week.
"This study looks at the very kind of student that the federal financial-aid system is most designed to help, and finds that the system is failing them,'' said Christopher Edley, president of the United Negro College Fund, which prepared the report with the National Institute of Independent Colleges and Universities.
"We're spoiling the educational dreams of an entire generation of black youths,'' Mr. Edley said.
The study found that between 1979-80 and 1984-85, the purchasing power of Pell Grants, which go to low-income students, fell by 37.3 percent. That reduction, it found, had the severest impact on the 62,000 students at the nation's 57 private historically black colleges, who constitute 6 percent of the total black undergraduate enrollment.
Students at black private colleges, according to the study, tend to be poorer, more dependent on federal assistance, and less likely to receive institutional or state aid than private-college students in general.
As a result of the declining value of federal grants, it concluded, the students in black private colleges reported a 10-fold increase in their reliance on loans to finance tuitions during this decade.
The study was unable to prove that this trend had contributed to the nationwide reduction in the proportion of blacks attending college. But officials from the sponsoring groups said lower enrollments are a likely result of reduced aid.
"These students are really on the front lines,'' said Julianne Still Thrift, senior vice president of NIICU "For them, aid is a clear necessity. If it is pulled back, they have nowhere else to go.''
Moreover, she said, the increasingly heavy debt burden may discourage those who do enroll from pursuing careers requiring the added cost of an advanced degree.
The report, "Access to College: The Impact of Federal Financial Aid Policies at Private Historically Black Colleges,'' comes at a time when policymakers and federal officials are questioning whether students in general are relying too heavily on loans to pay for their college educations.
A report issued in January by the Congressional Joint Economic Committee found that the total amount of student debt in loans from government sources has tripled--to $9.8 billion--in the past decade. The report asked: "Are we overburdening a generation?''
At the same time, the Congress is debating the Reagan Administration's fiscal 1988 budget, which would cut spending on grants and unsubsidized loans, while allowing students to borrow higher amounts at market rates and to repay loans on the basis of their post-graduation income.
Bruce M. Carnes, the Education Department's deputy undersecretary for planning, budget, and evaluation, called the new report "false, pathetic, and malicious.'' The shift from grants to loans is fair, he said, because college graduates earn, on average, $650,000 more over their lifetimes than people without college degrees.
"Some people would have you believe college students are the single most disadvantaged group of people in the United States,'' Mr. Carnes said in an interview. "I don't think that's factually accurate.''
Going to college "is something they choose to do,'' he continued. "They are not drafted to go into the mouth of a live volcano. If people elect to do this, even if they have to borrow money, I don't see any unfairness in that.''
The new study found that students in historically black private colleges have, during the past five years, sharply increased their reliance on loans to finance college costs. The proportion of student-aid recipients in those colleges who were dependent on loans rose from 4 percent in 1979-80 to 46 percent in 1984-85, the study found.
The students turned to loans, it found, because other sources of aid were unavailable. Their families were generally unable to pay their tuitions, the report says, noting that the students studied came from relatively large families, averaging 4.6 members, and that more than a third of them had at least one other sibling in college.
Moreover, the study found, the median family income of the aid recipients studied was $10,733 in 1983-84, approximately one-third of the median income for all families with children in college.
The colleges themselves were also limited in the amount of financial assistance they could provide, the study found. Endowments at historically black private institutions average 50 percent of those at other private colleges, it found.
In addition, the report notes, because average tuitions at the black institutions are lower than those at other private colleges, the black schools have less income to use for scholarships.
Tuition at Paine College in Georgia, for example, is about half the amount necessary to meet costs, according to its president, William Harris.
"If I were to take a wholly business approach, rather than increase tuition from $3,800 to $4,125 next year, I would say we ought to double it,'' Mr. Harris said. "But in the same act, I would be saying that not all students who want to come can afford to come.''
Students in black private colleges are also likely to receive less state aid than other students, since the colleges tend to be located in states that provide relatively small amounts of financial aid to students in private colleges, the study found.
Because of the increased reliance on loans, the report concludes, "the 'real cost' of attending college increased for those needy students attending the colleges that historically have served a large proportion of America's black youth.''
'Real Cost' A Factor
This increased cost, it says, may have contributed to the fact that college enrollment among blacks has fallen at a time when the black high-school-graduation rate has increased.
Enrollment "is affected by the availability of financial aid,'' Mr. Harris said. "More than anything else, it is affected by rumors of the availability of financial aid.''
For example, he said, in 1983, when former Secretary of Education Terrel H. Bell proposed sharp cuts in the Guaranteed Student Loan program, "many people thought that meant [it would happen] that September.''
"Students made decisions not to go to college,'' Mr. Harris continued. "It had an immediate impact on enrollment.''
Furthermore, he said, the heavy reliance on student loans will likely dissuade students from seeking careers that require advanced degrees.
The U.N.C.F.-NIICU study found that more than three-fourths of freshmen in historically black private colleges aspire to earn graduate or professional degrees, compared with half of all college freshmen, but that fewer blacks earn advanced degrees.
"They are coming in with higher aspirations, and making it through the system, but for some reason they are not going to graduate school,'' Ms. Thrift of NIICU said. "The reason is probably money.''
Copies of "Access to College'' are available for $10 each from the Research Department, United Negro College Fund Inc., 500 East 62nd St., New York, N.Y. 10021, or from the National Institute of Independent Colleges and Universities, 122 C Street, N.W., Suite 750, Washington, D.C. 20001.