Shortly after I began my tenure at Bennett College for Women, the class of 2011 arrived on campus, and on Saturday, May 7, Bennett’s first class to spend their entire four years with me as their president graduated.

Our graduation, those around the nation (many HBCUs have graduations over the Mother’s Day weekend, perhaps in tribute to all the sacrifices mothers and fathers make for their graduates), was poignant, moving, and reflective.

The dynamic Elaine Jones was our commencement speaker, and she challenged students to commit themselves to life-long learning, and to give to the alma mater. Indeed, she described our students as LAMBA Belles, with LAMBA an acronym for life-long learning, ambition, managing resources, belief systems, and alma mater.

In her inimitable fashion, the first woman to lead the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund challenged students to continue to grow, to give, to be discerning, and to believe. Her managing resources point was especially provocative, as she described resources as health, reputation, and energy, not just money.

Bennett’s Class of 2011 joins other graduates in experiencing an improved labor market. A survey by the National Association of Colleges and Employers says that 53 percent of all employers expect to hire new college graduates; in the fall, fewer than half said they would hire from the class of 2011. While the labor market has still not recovered from the recession, and the class of 2011 won’t have as many opportunities as the class of 2007 did, they are entering a labor market that looks better than it did in the past three years.

It’s a good thing the Class of 2011 will have more chances at employment, since they’ll need everything they earn to deal with the mounting student debt they face. This class is graduating with more debt than any of their predecessors-an average debt of $22,900 per person. This is 8 percent more than last year and in inflation-adjusted terms, 47 percent more than a decade ago.

To be sure, an investment in education is the best decision that one can make. At the same time, the realities of debt repayment shape the life choices of the Class of 2011 and will cause many to delay homeownership, graduate school, car purchase, or even nonprofit sector employment.

Indeed, while the federal government offers some loan forgiveness for those who accept public service jobs, including classroom teaching, many graduates feel challenged to earn as much as they can so they can pay-off their loans and get on with their lives.

African American college graduates, more likely to be first generation and more working class, carry more debt than others. HBCU graduates, those who attended colleges with lower endowments than other colleges, are also more likely to have a higher level of indebtedness.
HBCUs are a vital part of our nation’s higher education landscape, doing more with less than many other institutions. The current recession has posed challenges to us, as to others in higher education, and yet we may be less able to deal with the financial challenges, because we come to them without the strong financial foundations that other colleges have.

And yet we are buoyed and supported by the energy and spirit of our alumnae. At Bennett, the glorious class of 1961, the women who were an integral part of the sit-in movement in Greensboro, returned for their Golden class reunion with a record-breaking gift to Bennett. Two of the special members of that class, Roslyn Smith a retired social worker from New York, and Esther Terry, Bennett’s provost, worked indefatigably. Their classmate, Linda Beatrice Brown, a Bennett professor and niece of Bennett’s first woman President Willa B. Player, is writing a history of the Bennett women in the civil rights movement.

I have to believe that all HBCU graduates of the class of 1961 are reflecting on their experiences, on the way the world has changed since their graduation 50 years ago, on the importance of HBCUs then and now, and supporting their alma maters with energy and enthusiasm. We need the class of 1961 to reach back to embrace the class of 2011, the young people who have more challenges, chances and choices, who enter a labor market improved but not yet vibrant, shackled by debt and, at the same time, armed with a rich HBCU experience that will shape and direct their lives and careers.

Congratulations, HBCU classes of 2011. And thank you, class of 1961. Your activist spirit is the foundation for our work.

Julianne Malveaux is president of Bennett College for Women. Her most recent book is “Surviving and Thriving: 365 Facts in Black Economic History” (

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