Historically black colleges were established to help young African Americans get a good start in life.

But today graduates of these colleges are suffering disproportionately from the kind of college loan debt that holds young people back. A front-page story in the Wall Street Journal lays out the debt situation facing graduates:

• HBCU alumni have a median federal-debt load of about $29,000 at graduation—32% above graduates of other public and nonprofit four-year schools.

• The majority of HBCU grads haven’t paid down even $1 of their original loan balance in the first few years out of school.

• America’s 82 four-year HBCUs make up 5% of four-year institutions, but more than 50% of the 100 schools with the lowest three-year student-loan repayment rates.

As the Journal notes, these colleges, established before the Civil Rights Act of 1964,were supposed to provide opportunities for a traditionally disadvantaged population. But saddling young people with debt is the opposite of providing advantages.

One reason this situation has come about is that black families have the "least wealth of the largest U.S. racial groups" but the costs of HBCUs has (like all U.S. colleges) risen significantly. HBCUs have not grown the kinds of endowments other colleges have and thus have fewer resources to help students pay for their education.

Here is how that plays out in the life of one young man:

Theo Dorsey, 25, graduated from Hampton University in 2015, nearly three decades after his father did from Southern University at New Orleans, another HBCU. He borrowed $20,500 and has been paying off mostly interest on an income-based repayment plan. He didn’t see an alternative to debt, and his parents “wanted me to be able to chase my dreams and get my higher education like they were able to.”

Now a television reporter in the Greensboro, N.C., area, he still owes nearly $20,000 and “bills and loans eat up most of my checks as is.” He said he earns less than $50,000 a year, and the loan has made him put off saving as much as he would like. “The odds are kind of stacked up against me,” he said. “It doesn’t feel fair, but it’s all I know.”

He also plans to help repay the roughly $91,000 his father took out for him in federal parent loans. His father, Tyrone, said he graduated with about $1,500 in debt in 1986—about $3,500 in today’s dollars—and repaid within two years. “You want to position your children for an opportunity to be successful,” the father said, but carrying debt is “kind of tough to swallow.”

Pat Hundley, 67, who took out loans to help her kids get through Howard University, owes about $62,000 in federal parent loans. She lives on Social Security and still works to help pay her debts.  “I’m going to die with that debt,” she said, “unless I win the lottery."

The Journal reports that around half of African-American borrowers who belonged to freshman classes at any kind of institution of higher learning in the 2003-2004 school year have defaulted on a student loan within 12 years. That's twice the rate for white borrowers, according to a June 2018 paper by Columbia University associate professor Judith Scott-Clayton.

A partial–very partial–solution might mean making loans more judiciously. Several colleges are doing this and at least one is requiring students to work part-time on campus or at companies during their undergraduate years, And some have put more emphasis on majors leading to higher paying jobs.

These colleges are to be commended for beginning to address a problem tthat is making a mockery of the quest for a better life through college.

We also need to recognize that college, once the door to opportunity, is now all too often the gate to a life of debt and anxiety.

More than trying to make debt manageable, we should be asking if there are good alternatives to the coveted four-year college experience. (Good news: there are many alternatives.)

It is particularly sad to see the HBCUs so hard hit by the debt problem.