Where does ‘the money reside’ in higher education?

A growing number of Black students are turning to crowdsourcing to offset tuition costs

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An emerald oasis tucked within the heart of the Imperial Courts Housing Projects in Watts provides a canopy of serenity for residents. Featuring fruit trees and a butterfly garden, the Beverly Hills-inspired greenspace is the vision of 18-year-old Marveon Mabon, a teen on a mission to unify and reinvest in his community.

“Watts is not looking for a handout but a hand up,” Mabon explained.  

If only money grew on trees.

A first-generation high school graduate, Mabon was accepted to 17 colleges. He also served as student body president of his class in addition to mentoring younger kids at the Watts COVID-19 outdoor learning pod and leading efforts for the Watts Unity Garden in Los Angeles. His dedication and hard work impressed Morehouse College, but by the time Mabon’s high school sent out his transcripts, all the financial aid he would have qualified for had already been awarded. 

Faced with the daunting task of paying $49,700 per year in tuition, Mabon admitted he almost opted for a local school over his dream of becoming a Morehouse Man.

Marveon Mabon education thegrio.com
Marveon Mabon (Credit: Stacy Twilley/GoFundMe

“Morehouse is the one that resonated most with me because it’s not just about grades, it’s about community, giving back, and that brotherhood,” he said. “I knew going to school was something that I always wanted to do but the path to college was dim.”

As one of 10 kids raised by a single mom, student loans were a risky option at best. Mabon eventually confided in Stacy Twilley, a dedicated volunteer and lead coordinator with the Watts Unity Garden who began a GoFundMe page on Mabon’s behalf to help him realize his dream.

“To not ask for help is one thing, but to not even know where to ask for that kind of help is the systemic problem,” Twilley, a mother of three girls currently in college, pointed out.  “We have to fix that gap of people wanting to help, people who have the resources to help, and then the communities that need the help so that everybody has the same access.”

However, access to college –especially financial access –, is anything but equitable. Student loan debt in the U.S. surpassed a record $1.7 trillion dollars in 2021, with Black students and Black graduates bearing a glaringly disproportionate load.

According to a 2016 Brookings Institute study, “four years after graduation, Black graduates have nearly $25,000 more student loan debt than white graduates: $52,726 on average for Black graduates, compared to $28,006 for the typical white graduate.” 

Black students and families of every income level are also more likely to borrow money for college than white students, according to the Urban Institute.

“The challenges faced by students of color—particularly Black students (PDF)—in higher education have roots in our nation’s racist history, from slavery to Jim Crow to redlining,” explained Matthew Chingos, vice president of the Urban Institute’s Center on Education Data and Policy.

Black college students
Photo: Adobe Stock

While income levels, interest, and wage gaps upon graduation certainly impact student debt amounts, Chingos emphasized the huge generational wealth gap between Black and white Americans as one of the largest contributing factors to the ongoing student debt divide.

“It should not be on 17-year-olds or 25-year-olds; we shouldn’t say they should’ve known better because this was the government and their college saying, ‘hey sign this piece of paper we’ll give you a loan,'” Chingos noted. “Given the way the conversation about student loans has evolved, I can imagine why people are hesitant to take them on so I sympathize why people would think about other financing mechanisms.”

This is why more and more students like New Orleans East native Courtney Davis are turning to GoFundMe and other forms of crowdsourcing to help offset rising tuition costs.

“I wasn’t really taught how much college actually costs. I was just taught that college is very expensive and that if I get these good grades, and I get this good GPA, and this good ACT score that, you know, I might actually have a chance of going to college…but that’s just sugar-coating it,” Davis said she recently realized. She says several of her classmates have also started GoFundMe pages in hopes of receiving some financial aid.  

After losing her 18-year-old brother to gun violence, Davis became inspired to pursue a career in criminal justice. She recently attended the Federal Bar Association Justice Camp and received the Best Oralist Award. Davis plans to attend Southern University in the fall and even started her own nail business during the pandemic; but it is not nearly enough to cover tuition, room and board, and other expenses.

“College is just way too expensive. Scholarships do help, but if you aren’t a 36 on the ACT, perfect GPA, it’s very hard to get a full-ride or to even get a partial scholarship at that,” Davis continued. “Because of COVID all of these colleges have lost so much money so that means they barely are able to give out that much money.”

Courtney Davis education thegrio.com
Courtney Davis (Credit: Courtney Davis/GoFundMe)

For now, because of the pandemic, federal student loan payments have been paused with interest rates set to 0 percent. However, that policy is set to expire on October 1, and the crushing effects of student loan debt continue to give rise to headlines and hot button debates in Washington D.C.  

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY), U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), U.S. Rep. Ayanna Pressley (D-MA), and several others are currently pushing President Joe Biden to cancel up to $50,000 in debt for millions of federal student loan borrowers. Since taking office in January, President Biden has cancelled nearly $3 billion dollars in student loans (but remember $3 billion out of $1.7 trillion total is barely tipping the scales).

With or without student loans, both Mabon and Davis agree investing in their educations is both paramount and priceless in the opportunities they hope will follow. The two teens have both received more support than they could have imagined through GoFundMe and they would encourage other students in the same position to give crowdsourcing a try.

Reflecting back to when things were most bleak and dim along his path to college, Mabon is overwhelmed with gratitude for the perfect strangers, who through GoFundMe, have provided a beacon of light.

“When I needed more lights, so I know this is the runway, the community and people outside the community all chipped in and said ‘ok we’re gonna hold these extra lights so you can take off and get this plane in the air,'” he said. “They honestly don’t know how much they just changed my life and helped benefit my education.”

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