Lodriguez V. Murray Credit: Contributed

‘You look like a Morehouse man.’ I heard those words from my fifth-grade teacher—Mrs. Barbara Pulliam, and they still resonate with me nearly 30 years later.

After hearing her encouraging words, I knew college, specifically Morehouse College, was my destiny. I grew up in Augusta, Ga., son to a young mother who headed the household for several years. That made getting a job, working hard, and paying your bills the order of the day. Going to college was not first and foremost in conversations around the family dinner table with my mother and three siblings. As a matter of fact, it wasn’t discussed at all.

However, those words, ‘you look like a Morehouse man,’ convinced me to look in our family’s hand-me-down “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 would cause her to one day attend my Morehouse graduation as well as the conferring of an honorary degree on me all prior to the age of 40.

There was no family college fund, no athletic scholarship, no savings, and still I applied to and was accepted by Morehouse. I promised my mother that I would not saddle the family with debt, especially because of a young sister and twin brothers, who needed everything the family had to offer.

By 30, I was free of student debt. My solution: scholarships. I applied for every scholarship I could find, including one offered by the United Negro College Fund, today known as “UNCF.” Remember the name, UNCF. It could be a game changer in life after college debt free or facing years of financial stress. I even wrote to every business my parents did business with and asked if they had funds for students attending college.

The local grocery store, the hometown bar-b-q pit, our insurance agent, and of course my own church. I collected and cobbled those checks, large and small together to get enough to start my journey, but I had a balance—a 5-digit balance. That meant I had a loan.

However, I was not deterred. I went back in that financial aid office after the lines were gone and the semester began. I told them I wanted to tell my mother by Mother’s Day I had no loan. The staff was so touched by my story, I was told to go check out the office’s bulletin board. I discovered I still had time to apply for scholarships. I selected a UNCF scholarship and applied right on the spot. When I arrived back on campus in January 2001, before classes started, my mother called to ask if I applied for a scholarship. When informed I did, she let me know a check for $10,000 from UNCF was there. My debt was all but gone. My education was guaranteed. Those dreams of being a Morehouse man, not just looking like one, were within reach.

Scholarships and grants—not loans and the promise of elusive loan forgiveness—are essential if college students (especially those like me: Black students from low income backgrounds) are to lessen the burden of seemingly endless mountains of debt as they journey to and through college. Yes, applying for grants and scholarships is tedious and time-consuming work. I know because I completed applications on a typewriter—not a computer. Too often I learn from advisors and counselors that scholarships are available, but students simply are not taking the time to submit applications; or they start the applications but think the essays are too much to ask. Too often students are falling into the trap of debt acceptance with a hope of forgiveness.

I urge students to avoid the mindset of debt acceptance and pursue scholarships and grants that will lighten the financial pressure of attending college.

UNCF is here to help. We are largest private provider of scholarships to minority individuals and the largest and most effective minority education organization. We administer more than 400 programs, including scholarship, internship and fellowship, mentoring and summer enrichment programs.

For 77 years, UNCF has supported historically Black colleges and universities, raised well over $5 billion to support them and their students, helped over 500,000 students earn college degrees, and every day we have reaffirmed the truth and wisdom of our motto that is the foundation of all that we do: “A mind is a terrible thing to waste, but a wonderful thing to invest in.®”

We’re all too familiar with the numbers. The average student loan balance after college is $37,173—and that’s higher for Black students. The average Black household well is just $7,000 while the average white household has amassed the wealth of $107,000. With those kinds of stats weighing on Black and brown students with clear aptitude for higher education, debt simply cannot be the answer—even if it is the easy 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 UNCF (United Negro College Fund). He develops and drives strategies to influence and mobilize action in the U.S. Congress and executive branch on the public policy priorities of UNCF, its 37 member HBCUs and the more than 50,000 students they serve.

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