A couple weeks before Howard University’s 147th commencement, its president e-mailed tens of thousands of alumni with an urgent and unusual appeal on behalf of 180 seniors in the class of 2015: Help the students pay off their debt so they can get their diplomas.
The prospective graduates, more than 10 percent of the undergraduate class, were on target to finish all academic requirements, President Wayne A.I. Frederick wrote. But they faced a final barrier to obtaining degrees from the prominent university in the nation’s capital — they owe the school money.
Frederick’s pitch reflects a bottom-line challenge in higher education. Colleges juggle and stretch to keep as many students enrolled as possible, even those in financial trouble, but in the end they must also collect on their bills.
Raising the possibility that a deserving student might be ineligible to don a cap and gown is a powerful incentive to settle an account. “This promising group of aspiring professionals desperately needs your assistance in becoming financially cleared to participate” in the May 9 commencement, Frederick wrote last month.
The e-mail described 23 cases in the hopes that alumni would cover final balances ranging from $313.50 to $27,871.75. Without using names, Frederick listed their home towns, majors, grade-point averages, outstanding balances and, for many, detail about their financial situations.
Student J had received several need-based grants. “Despite this assistance,” Frederick wrote, “the student has a remaining balance of $6,659.50 that must be paid in order for her to graduate.” Student K is ready to enter the workforce, Frederick wrote, but “his family’s financial hardships” left him with a debt of $875.
Student F, an aspiring doctor, turned out to be Shantal Y. Rose of Miami. About a week ago, the university notified her that her balance of $353 has been cleared, thanks to the alumni response to Frederick’s appeal.
“I was ecstatic,” Rose said.
Rose, 22, who majored in human performance with a concentration in sports medicine, said she has two older sisters who graduated from Howard. Among many highlights in her years on the campus, known as the Hilltop, she said, was working as a resident assistant in the Meridian Hill and Lucy Diggs Slowe halls. When younger students knocked on her door to ask for advice, Rose liked playing the role of an older sister.
Rose, whose father is a chauffeur, said she got through Howard with help from need-based grants but also borrowed tens of thousands of dollars. This school year, according to the College Board, Howard’s tuition, fees, room and board totaled more than $34,000. Before the alumni stepped in, Rose said, she was wondering how she would clear her account in time for graduation.
“If worse came to worst,” she said, “I figured I could find the money somehow.”
In all, the 180 prospective graduates owed about $380,000 when Frederick sent the appeal in late April, said Derek R. Kindle, the university’s executive director of student financial services. That is a small fraction of the approximately $15 million a year Howard collects in donations. But the historically black university, with more than 10,000 students, has been under financial pressure in recent years. Last month it disclosed a cut of 84 staff positions. Every dollar of revenue counts.
As of Wednesday night, Kindle said, the university had received $160,000 in online donations in response to Frederick’s appeal, not counting checks that might be en route through standard mail. Kindle said the university will keep accounts open as long as possible to enable students to clear balances and participate in the ceremony on the main quad, known as The Yard.
Asked how a student could accumulate a large unpaid balance, Kindle said that Howard, like many universities, sought to become more flexible with billing and payment plans after the 2008-2009 recession. Howard’s previous policy, he said, was to require students to pay the balance at the beginning of the term, or to pay the full room and board charge plus half of tuition upfront, with the other half due halfway through a semester.
But starting in 2009, he said, the university offered students an option to pay as little as 25 percent of their bill upfront and the rest through regular payments during the term. Monthly payments are popular.
Without flexible payment plans, Kindle said, “it would prevent a lot of students from being able to matriculate, to be quite honest.”
When students fall behind in payments, Kindle said, the university doesn’t pull them out of class midsemester. Sometimes there are special hardships — a delay in military benefits, for example — that merit extra patience. But typically, he said, if a balance of $5,000 or more is due after the spring semester, the university will step in to ensure that payments get back on track, or else the student will be ineligible to resume classes in the fall.
Michael Reilly, executive director of the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers, said he has been hearing lately of more colleges that are allowing students to carry a balance from one term to another. “It’s an emerging issue,” he said.
At Howard, when students finish all academic work but fail to clear their debts, the university will not release their transcripts, mail their diplomas or provide them with caps and gowns for commencement. Kindle said that the university will count them officially as graduates and will tell any prospective employers who inquire that they earned a bachelor’s degree.
Paris M. Bates, 21, from the Chicago suburb of Hinsdale, Ill., will graduate this month from Howard with a bachelor’s degree in biology. She plans to go to medical school and is interested in neonatology.
On Thursday morning, she learned in an e-mail that a donor had cleared her balance of $2,242.48. Bates said she was excited, grateful and surprised. “I didn’t know I was receiving that scholarship,” she said. “All the financial burden just literally was lifted off of me.”