December 7, 2020

When the U.S. Department of Education released its data on parent plus loans, the news was no surprise to Spelman College.

Spelman’s in-depth study into the financial aid needs of our students several years ago reinforced our understanding of one of this country’s fundamental inequities: high performing, high need students are drastically underfunded. If 2020 has taught us anything, it is that racial fault lines continue to make the lives of African Americans quantitatively harder than those of non-Black Americans. This is a disquieting realization.

African American families, in particular, have taken on the burden of debt in pursuit of the educational excellence that is core to the American dream. In response to what we have learned, Spelman has developed a comprehensive plan to reduce this burden for current and future students.

When Spelman conducted the close analysis of the annual financial aid needs of its students, we paid particular attention to the unfunded gap that remained after we disbursed all financial aid, public and private, institutional and external. The amount of unfunded aid remaining for Spelman students is $40 million, annually.

Faced with that data, the college determined that we had to find new ways to support our students. We recognized how crippling loans can be for our families. With PELL funding from the federal government remaining virtually unchanged for the last decade, we decided that dramatic action was necessary. As a result of this reckoning, three years ago, the college began an aggressive campaign to close that unfunded gap and reduce the need for loans.

Our No. 1 strategic goal is to "Deliver the Spelman Promise," to graduate students with a competitive edge,  which means, in part, reduced debt. To date, Spelman has been successful in launching its campaign. Our first priority was to raise new financial aid funds. In three years, thanks to the generosity of donors like Patty Quillin and Reed Hastings, Seth and Beth Klarman, MacKenzie Scott, Frank Baker and Laura Day, Charles and Karen Phillips and many, many others, we raised over $100 million in new financial aid.

Second, we found ways internally to lower the cost of attendance for students by reducing the costs of text books and shortening the time to degree completion. Most dramatically, we will launch an initiative next year that will provide a new source of revenue for the college that will subsidize operations and mitigate our dependence on tuition.

Spelman is not a rich school; we do not have the multibillion dollar endowments of the colleges that are our academic competitors. For a private college, our tuition is modest. We can make these changes and will, but, in truth, centuries of racist practices and policies in the nation disadvantaged Black families and led to an enormous White/Black wealth gap. According to the Brookings Institution, the typical White family net worth is $171,000, which is 10 times that of the typical Black family at $17,150. This wealth gap continues to make it difficult for Black parents to pay for college today without amassing sizable debt.

Yet, despite the financial hurdles, our academic outcomes are impressive. Half of the students Spelman serves are PELL eligible, that is low to moderate income, which makes our six-year graduation rate of 75% a stand out. (That is 30 percentage points above the national average for African Americans). Our national ranking as fourth in the nation for social mobility validates a Spelman education economically. According to the National Science Foundation, Spelman is the national leader in the production of Black women who complete Ph.D.s in STEM. Quality costs, and balancing high quality with the need to keep costs low and the college affordable is a challenge we have had to face.

Spelman’s trustees, 100% of whom have contributed to the college, and our leadership have stepped up to rectify the dependence on loans as a means of closing the gap. We have steered clear of any new programs, therefore, that resemble loans or income sharing. Instead, we are changing our financial architecture and we are inviting those who believe in educational excellence for Black women to join us in building the same type of financial aid support that our academic peers enjoy.
Mary Schmidt Campbell, Ph.D.
President, Spelman College

Office of the President
Phone: 404-270-5001

Fax: 404-270-5010

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