Grambling State University, a public HBCU located in rural Louisiana, is not known for much, but it does have this distinction: In 2015, GSU's graduates had the highest average student-loan debt of any university in the United States: $51,887!
On average, Grambling graduates leave school with more debt than Harvard or Yale graduates. In fact, Grambling students graduate with a higher debt load than people graduating from more than 1,000 other colleges.
How could this be? GSU's tuition is relatively modest; according to U.S New & World Report, Grambling's tuition is only about $7,000 for the 2016-2017 academic year. And its students get a lot of needs-based financial aid; 82 percent received some sort of needs-based financial assistance in a recent year at an average amount of $5,359. Indeed, according to a 2015 AAUP report, 73 percent of Grambling students received Pell grants, the highest rate among all Louisiana's four-year colleges and universities.
In my view, Grambling graduates' high debt load cannot be justified. Grambling is located in rural Louisiana where the cost of living is low. Tuition is relatively modest; and a high percentage of Grambling students receive needs-based student aid. How is it possible for Grambling graduates to rack up more than $50,000 in student-loan debt?
Not surprisingly, Grambling graduates are having difficult paying back their loans. Grambling's three-year default rate for its FY 2013 cohort is 17.7 percent, and of course that rate doesn't count people who have their student loans in deferment or forbearance and aren't making payments. According to a very useful report compiled by Monroe College, only 40 percent of Grambling's former students were making any progress on paying down their loans five years into the repayment period.
Grambling is a historically black university and a public institution that is partly supported by Louisiana taxpayers. Everyone supports the mission of the HBCUs, but we are not doing African Americans any favor if we allow them to enroll at an institution where graduates leave school with more than $50,000 in debt--debt that a high percentage of former Grambling students cannot pay back.
It is also worth noting that GSU's 4-year graduation rate is only 11 percent, and that the university ran an operating budget deficit for five consecutive years (FY 2011-2015). Willie Larkin, Grambling's president at the time, wrote an open letter in February 2016, in which he said that Grambling was "fighting for her life." Larkin reported that Grambling faced an operating budget deficit of more than $5 million when it began the 2015-2016 academic year and an even larger deficit in the athletic budget: $5,746,321.
Surely it is time to ponder whether the public investment in Grambling is paying off, not only for the people of Louisiana as a whole, but for Grambling's students. Or perhaps we don't care enough about the African American students who attend Grambling to ask some probing questions about why they leave school with so much student debt.
Postscript: Four months after writing an open letter stating that Grambling was "fighting for her life," Willie Larkin resigned as president of GSU.
Howard Bunis. Overview of the Financial Situation for Higher Education in Louisiana. American Association of University Professors, May 2015.
Greg Hilburn and Bob Lenx. Update: Grambling President Larkin resigns. thenewsstar.com, June 23, 2016.
Marc Jerome to Jea-Didier Gaina. Letter regarding proposed defense to repayment rule. Docket Number ED-2015-OPE-0103. August 1, 2016.
Willie Larkin. Grambling State University Is Fighting For Her Life. February 22, 2016.
Louisiana Legislature Auditor. Grambling State University Report Highlights. Audit Control # 80150088. December 2015.
Delece Smith-Barrow. 10 Colleges Where Grads Have High Debt. U.S. News World Report, July 4, 2017.