Hard Lessons in Education Funding

A student's path to dream college filled with roadblocks

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Toward the end of the 2007 fall semester, Erin Jackson went from tears of joy to tears of sorrow when she was forced to withdraw from Howard University, her dream school, after only one semester of studies.

Her financial aid package included a Federal Pell Grant, a need-based grant for low-income students, and a Stafford loan, which is distributed to most students regardless of credit worthiness. They covered tuition but did not provide the Cincinnati native enough money to pay for the dorm where freshmen are required to live.

Also included in her package was a $20,000 Federal Parent PLUS loan, but no one in her family was eligible for the fixed-rate loan. Despite her mother having lost her job, Jackson was still ineligible for Howard’s need-based institutional aid because her expected family contribution, a measure of the family’s financial strength used to determine the amount of federal financial aid to reward, was too high.

“I was distraught. I’d worked so hard all my life to get into the school of my choice, and now I was realizing that it just wasn’t enough,” says Jackson, who, in search of financial support, launched a letter-writing campaign to alumnae and school officials. “I just wanted to be heard.”

For too many low-income, first-generation college students like Jackson, the newly opened door to higher education can be a revolving one. These students were nearly four times more likely to leave college after the first year, compared to students who had neither of these risk factors, according to the Pell Institute’s 2008 report “Moving Beyond Access“.

Jackson’s letter-writing campaign was successful, and the art major and aspiring fashion designer was allowed to register and attend classes. She worked at DSW, a shoe retailer, part time and joined a tuition-reimbursement ROTC program that would pay her tuition for three years. But she still had a $3,386 balance to pay before she could re-enroll for the spring semester and accept the ROTC scholarship.

“At first [I thought,] I can do it. [But with time], I got tired, my grades started to slip, my hair fell out, and there were points where I did not sleep for hours,” says the 20-year-old who had  a 3.0 GPA at her college prep high school and managed to keep it at Howard, despite her hardships. “There was always something in the back of my head saying, you still need to pay for this. You might not be here next semester.”

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  • Mark H

    I know how hard it is out there. I would like to go to grad school but with grants drying up. It is becoming harder to find a way to finance my education which in my opinion is a very important part of any young persons personal development.I used to hear that you cannot put a price on a good education but it seems that some institutions do and its sad that many young people are in serious debt because of it.

  • Calvin J. Adolph

    When I read about Ms. Jackson’s story, I felt like I was reliving the nightmare all over again. I first set foot on Howard’s campus in fall 1988, fresh out of high school. Despite the disbelief that I wouldn’t be admitted (even by a church member of mine), I looked forward to attending my dream school on a 4-year Army ROTC scholarship and studying Electrical Engineering. I had never been to D.C. before, but considered no other institution to attend despite being heavily recruited by other HBCUs. Upon arrival, I was informed that I had received a conditional scholarship and would have to replace two teeth that I had removed to keep the scholarship. Of course the dental school was already full of appointments going into the next semester and I could not afford to see a dentist in D.C. My family back in Louisiana could not help with the situation because all funds had been exhausted just to get me there. I had no other choice than to return home at the end of the semester. Like Ms. Jackson, I am still considered a student and have a balance remaining of over $3500. Since then I have served in the United States Navy and the Louisiana Army National Guard. I am currently attending Baton Rouge Community College where I will graduate this December with an Associate Degrees in General Studies, Liberal Arts; an Associate of Arts in Liberal Arts; a Certificate in Business Technology; and a Certificate in General Studies. I am currently paying for my education out of my own pocket. I, too, wish that I could return to Howard, a place where I made lots of good friends, met prominent figures like Jesse Jackson (during his presidential campaign), and learned from some of the best professors in the world; but after starting a family I realize that it is easier said than done. As a first generation college student, I hope that one day this country will truly value educating (and funding that education) its citizens so that we all could share in the American dream.

  • JC

    I too am in the same situation as Miss Jackson & Calvin…my question is did you have to start over with your classes? Or was the college you went to afterwards able to utilize your unofficial transcripts? Thanks for your reply.

    • Rodrigo

      in your post, epclsialey at the beggining of your article. Thank you, your post is very valuable as always. Keep up the good work! You’ve got +1 more reader of your super blog:) Isabella S.

  • carlyn ashford

    Please do not give up on your education. Contact your financial counselor for assistance. Visit the local library and keep studying. God will make a way for. Do not forget to go back and help in your community.

    Many Blessings,
    Don’t Give Up!

  • carlyn ashford

    Don’t give up on your education !
    God will make a way.

  • Calvin J. Adolph


    I don’t know how Miss Jackson handled her situation, but as for me I did not list Howard on my application. If I had, the current institution would have required an official transcript and I would have had to pay back my outstanding balance. I am certain that when you apply for financial aid, all of your previous history will then be displayed. I have fortunately been able to pay my tuition out of pocket only because my current college offers deferred payment which allows me to pay tuition over the course of the semester. My college accepted credits for classes taken while in the military as well as based on my enlisted rank. Community colleges tend to be more relaxed when you enroll and are more affordable. I recommend them as a way to earn college credits for the first two years and possibly a degree. Then you can transfer to the four year college of your choice with upperclassmen status and hopefully some funds in case grants and scholarships are not available. I hope this helps you.

  • Ms. Jackson, congratulations on your tenacity, first of all. Many would simply have given up by now, in pursuit of their dream. I am glad that Black Enterprise is publishing the article, it highlights the fact that you are not alone!

    The struggle continues!

    God Bless,
    Tony Daniel
    Cincinnati, Ohio.

  • Sharita Clark

    Ms. Jackson,

    I am also the first child of my parents to attend college and I started at 29 and it has been a struggle. I work a fulltime job and I’m also a fulltime student. I commend you for not giving up on your dream despite getting into the school of your dreams. I too wanted to attend a particular university but I did my research and realized that community college was the best choice. I say this because I earned a 3.75 GPA and to my surpise was awarded an additional $800 to my Pell Grant package. This awarded was a great help and I plan to use it to attend for the summer session. Many obstacles may come your way but every struggle makes you stronger and more focused to achieve your goal. I want to thank you for story and I wish you conintued sucess.

  • There is obviously a lot to learn about this. I {think|believe|suppose|guess|recollect} you {made|established|produced} some {good|serious|strong|respectable|genuine|well-thought-of} points. {This blog sure has some great information and it has taught me at night in this crazy world of ours. Again THANK YOU

    Thanks so much.. rlealy appreciate the kind words. God deserves all the glory. Also, its kinda cool to get the award during UST’s 400th Year!