Emergency Aid Helps Boost Student Retention at HBCUs

There are many reasons for the low graduation rates that do not have anything to do with academic performance. HBCUs are typically underfunded, and smaller endowments mean fewer available resources, lower faculty salaries and limiting funding for research and expansion.

Historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) were initially founded to educate students of African American descent. Today’s HBCUs help Black Americans earn degrees to equip them for professional careers and generally advance their post-secondary education in an inclusive environment. These schools offer students an opportunity to study with others with similar backgrounds and offer a unique learning experience.

Alarmingly, the graduation rate for HBCUs is only 35 percent, compared with the national graduation rate of 60 percent for all higher education students nationwide, according to the Thurgood Marshall College Fund, a nonprofit that represents 47 public HBCUs, which surveyed 64 of the 100 historically black colleges and universities. Only five of these schools – Spelman College, Howard University, Hampton, Morehouse and Fisk University – graduated more than 50 percent of students.  

There are many reasons for the low graduation rates that do not have anything to do with academic performance. HBCUs are typically underfunded, and smaller endowments mean fewer available resources, lower faculty salaries and limiting funding for research and expansion. Many students struggle financially, and leave their programs when they can’t pay tuition. College retention rates have dropped since the beginning of COVID-19, making the situation even more dire.

Over the years, some individuals have stepped up with gifts to HBCUs. Notably, billionaire MacKenzie Scott, recently announced nearly $6 billion in gifts to colleges and other organizations. HBCUs, Hispanic-serving institutions (HSIs) and Tribal colleges and universities serving Native Americans got approximately $800 million.

But these enormous gifts are few and far between, and institutions serving traditionally underrepresented students need a more consistent stream of funding. Some organizations are forming partnerships to deliver funding and help level the playing field for these schools.

Ascendium Education Group, a nonprofit that helps learners reach their postsecondary education and realize their career goals, works to break down barriers to higher education for students, especially those from historically underrepresented populations. Ascendium focuses on tribal colleges and HBCUs across the U.S. and provides grant money to HBCUs and tribal colleges to support learners from low-income backgrounds.

Ascendium is partnering with Beam, formerly known as Edquity, the end-to-end platform that streamlines equitable public benefit administration. Under the arrangement, Beam’s cloud-based platform will distribute more than $760,000 in emergency aid to 49 minority-serving institutions in the form of 2,000 grants. The partnership will help remove administrative barriers to emergency aid to facilitate grants that will help students persist through graduation. The aid will cover basic student needs including housing, transportation and child care

At the same time, Beam’s white label platform will provide Ascendium and its partners with complete visibility into data across all institutions so they can better understand how these funds are performing. Beam will evaluate the rate of students persisting through college and provide data on the progress of students who have received the emergency aid from Ascendium’s partners.    

“Ascendium is partnered with Federal Student Aid (FSA), an office of the U.S. Department of Education, and success is defined by degree completion rates. By removing obstacles, including of course the unexpected financial ones, we see higher persistence toward degree completion,” said Beth Erikson, Ascendium Vice President. “Emergency aid grants funded by Ascendium to our Project Success schools, fulfill a significant need and help students with unforeseen financial emergencies, allowing them to remain in school. The ability to persist toward degree completion is greatly improved by removing these obstacles. Our partnership with Beam will provide students and schools a robust and intuitive platform to apply for, receive and track the grant process.”

Beam Chief Operating Officer Kimberly Morgan explained that the partnership aims to eliminate administrative barriers and streamline the delivery of emergency aid to thousands of students from historically marginalized communities across the country. The multilingual and end-to-end platform enables students to get aid directly deposited to their accounts within 48 hours after completing their application.

“As an alumna of an historically Black university, I understand the value of these institutions. I know the important role they play not only in individual lives, but also in creating a more inclusive workforce and more vibrant communities,” Morgan said.

Financial emergencies of $500 or less derail millions of students from finishing college every year, she added. “The difference of a few dollars can be life-changing, which is why we need to ensure students have access to cash aid to cover basic needs and reach their educational goals. No one should have to choose between paying for food or rent and getting their degree,” Morgan pointed out.

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