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Reducing the Cost of Higher Education Through the Invaluable Mission of Community Colleges and Affordable HBCUs

Dr. Christopher Wayne RobinsonDr. Christopher Wayne Robinson

Our nation’s community colleges and historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) possess a mutual strength that often goes underappreciated. This strength involves meeting the future needs of students interested in transferring to diverse schools such as HBCUs, women’s colleges, and other minority-serving institutions. Historically Black institutions and community colleges share a mutual responsibility in collectively assisting low-income, first-generation, and BIPOC students, who are often disproportionately affected by the long-term effects of high student loan debt. Select community colleges and HBCUs have already established such institutional roadmaps with great success; however, not all HBCUs and community colleges deem such transfer pathways as a top institutional priority in increasing long-term diversity in higher ed, especially during the turbulent era of COVID-19.

Nonetheless, to ensure greater transfer equity among low-income students and diverse students of color, equitable transfer pipelines or 2+2 programs must become a top DEI (diversity, equity, and inclusion) strategy for any institution. So, how do we get there? The solution is quite simple, but the most difficult challenge in achieving this goal requires a major cultural shift driven by college affordability, transfer equity, and meaningful partnerships between community colleges, HBCUs, and secondary education settings.

There is a significant need to foster better collaborative relationships among community colleges and HBCUs. Throughout history, HBCUs and community colleges have played a critical role in educating diverse students seeking to receive higher education. Since the inception of the HBCU in 1837 and the emergence of the community college in 1901, both institutional systems have served our country well by providing educational opportunities in community-based environments, which are oftentimes preferred by their target student populations. However, because of surging college attendance costs, select HBCUs and community colleges continue to balance high-quality affordable education options for students while also meeting the emerging needs of their institutions. By collectively joining institutional forces, HBCUs and community colleges can help shrink the disproportionate racial student loan debt gap, particularly among African American students, by encouraging students to first graduate from a two-year community college and transferring to an affordable HBCU with significantly reduced out-of-state tuition fees to earn a bachelor’s degree in a minimum of two academic school years. Contrary to popular belief, HBCUs and community colleges still serve very similar student populations with comparable socioeconomic profiles.

Educating similar student populations

Despite a challenging 2020, HBCUs and community colleges are still thriving. In Fall 2018, 33 percent of undergraduate students attended public two-year colleges, according to the National Center for Educational Statistics with 44 percent of low-income, Black undergraduate students attending such institutions. Collectively, the majority of community college students averaged a household income of less than $20,000 annually, over 37 percent. Three out of five HBCU students identify as low income, first generation, and over 70 percent have limited financial resources for college expenses. HBCUs and community colleges have the opportunity to engage in meaningful, sustainable partnerships that can produce encouraging educational, economic, and social justice outcomes for diverse student populations.

Keeping college affordable through equity transfer pipelines

So, where do we begin? First, institutions can begin by collaboratively establishing evidence-based, sustainable degree transfer pathways and effective school-community engagement partnerships. Just imagine if a national strategy existed to support HBCUs and community colleges in developing program-to-program and transfer guarantee agreements with little to no application fees or out-of-state tuition costs for community college students transferring to a HBCU of their choice. This strategy possesses the potential to enhance HBCU and community college enrollment through a collaborative partnership focused on student success and transfer equity. Over 86 percent of Black students borrow federal student loans to attend four-year institutions in comparison to just 60 percent of White students. African American college graduates typically owe $25,000 more in student loan debt than White graduates do. Black students are more likely to encounter financial hardships due to high student loan repayment costs. Pairing the two-year affordable community college tuition, in addition to an affordable HBCU tuition with low or no out-of-state tuition feels will assist Black students in minimizing the cost of attending college.

Local community colleges are a great option for students interested in maximizing their academic potential while also minimizing their future student loan debt and other related college expenses. The national average community college debt for graduating students at public community colleges is approximately $13,576 in 2021. According to Forbes magazine, the current national average student loan debt for recent four-year college graduates is approximately $32,731. According to the American Association of Community Colleges, two-year students at community college can save approximately $6,710 a year in tuition and fees by earning an associate degree before transferring to a four-year institution. African American college graduates possess roughly $25,000 more student loan debt with a national average of $52,726 compared to $28,006 for White bachelor’s degree graduates. Having a higher amount of student loan debt in comparison to other racial and ethnic groups, Black students should consider minimizing college expenses by attending a community college before transferring to an affordable HBCU.

Select HBCUs in the heart of the Deep South such as my alma mater, Jackson State University, Grambling State, Alcorn State, Mississippi Valley State, and Southern universities offer affordable out-of-state tuition fee reductions or unrestricted waivers for incoming freshmen and transfer students based on their cumulative GPAs. Transferring to select HBCUs with out-of-state tuition fee waivers or significantly reduced fees, paired with an affordable community college education, can save students thousands of dollars before, during, and after their undergraduate college experience.

Articulation agreements offer a direct pathway for community college students to attend HBCUs. With the majority of R2, high-research HBCUs now offering online undergraduate and graduate programming, out-of-state students can attend select HBCUs from the comfort of their homes. With the expansion of remote learning and online education, transferring from a community college to an affordable HBCU online without paying for the additional cost of housing and meal plans, scan save students costly expenses by reallocating these unused funds toward keeping student loan debt as low as possible. Not only can we decrease student loan debt by doubling down on the missions of HBCUs and community colleges, but we can also create more equity and achieve social justice through eliminating student debt amongst some of the most brilliant Black minds: HBCU graduates.

Creating a seamless transfer experience for community college students to attend HBCUs is not a new phenomenon. Collaboratively, select HBCUs and community colleges have robust transfer agreements that may mutually benefit both institutions. If your college or university does not have such established agreements with HBCUs or other minority-serving institutions, now may be a good time to consider this as a top initiative. HBCUs are still on the rise!

Dr. Christopher Wayne Robinson is an associate professor of Social Work and Drug & Alcohol at the Community College of Allegheny County (CCAC) in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

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