After hearing his encouraging words, I knew college, especially Morehouse College, was my destiny. I grew up in Augusta, Georgia, the son of a young mother who ran the house for several years. It made getting a job, hard work, and paying your bills the order of the day. Going to college was not first and foremost a conversation around the family table with my mother and my three siblings. In fact, it wasn’t discussed at all.
However, those words, “You look like a Morehouse man,” convinced me to search our family’s “World Book Encyclopedia” for this Morehouse. That same day I set out to achieve my dream, and the words of a prophetic elementary school teacher led her to attend my Morehouse graduation one day as well as the presentation of an honorary degree on me , all before the age of 40. .
There was no family college fund, no athletic scholarship, no savings, yet I applied and was accepted by Morehouse. I promised my mother that I would not put the family in debt, especially because of a younger sister and twin brothers who needed everything the family had to offer.
At 30, I was student debt free. My solution: scholarships. I applied for every scholarship I could find, including one offered by the United Negro College Fund, now known as UNCF. Remember the name, UNCF. It could be a game-changer between living after college without debt or facing years of financial stress. I even wrote to all the companies my parents did business with and asked if they had funds for students going to college.
The local grocery store, my hometown bar-bq, our insurance agent, and of course my own church. I collected and tinkered with these checks, big and small, to have enough to start my journey, but I had a balance – a five-figure balance. It meant that I had a loan.
However, I was not deterred. I went back to that financial aid office after the lines ended and the semester started. I told them I wanted to tell my mom before Mother’s Day that I didn’t have a loan. Staff were so touched by my story that they told me to check the office bulletin board. I discovered that I still had time to apply for scholarships. I chose a UNCF scholarship and applied on the spot. When I returned to campus in January 2001, before classes started, my mother called to ask if I had applied for a scholarship. When she informed me that I did, she let me know that a check for $10,000 from UNCF was there. My debt was practically exhausted. My education was guaranteed. Those dreams of being a Morehouse man, and not just looking like one, were within reach.
Scholarships and grants – not loans and the promise of elusive loan forgiveness – are essential if students (especially those like me: black students from low-income backgrounds) are to ease the burden of mountains of seemingly endless debts as they journey to and through college.
Yes, applying for grants and scholarships is tedious and time-consuming work. I know this because I filled out applications on a typewriter – not on a computer. Too often I hear from counselors and advisors that scholarships are available, but students just don’t take the time to submit applications, or they start applications but think the essays are too much to ask. Too often, students fall into the trap of accepting debt with the hope of forgiveness.
I urge students to avoid the mindset of accepting debt and seek out scholarships and grants that will ease the financial pressure of a college education.
UNCF is here to help. We are the largest private provider of minority scholarships and the largest and most effective minority education organization. We administer over 400 programs, including scholarship, internship and bursary, mentorship and summer enrichment programs.
For 77 years, UNCF has supported historically black colleges and universities, raised more than $5 billion to support them and their students, and helped more than 500,000 students earn college degrees. Every day we have reaffirmed the truth and wisdom of our motto, the foundation of everything we do: “A mind is a terrible thing to waste, but a wonderful thing to invest in.”
We know the numbers all too well. The average student loan balance after college is $37,173 — and more for black students. The average black household wealth is just $7,000, while the average white household has amassed wealth of $107,000. With these kinds of statistics weighing on black and brown students with a clear aptitude for higher education, debt simply cannot be the answer – even if it is the easier option.
Take the harder path. Put scholarships in your internet search engine. Go to uncf.org. Please do anything but accept the debt, as the consequences of repayment will soon follow.
Lodriguez Murray is senior vice president of public policy and government affairs for the United Negro College Fund.