By Jarrett L. Carter, HBCU Digest
Veona doesn’t remember her first encounter as an escort, but she vividly remembers the feeling of waiting by the phone for interview call-backs from fast-food restaurants and shops where she'd applied for jobs without success.
“It’s not something I’m happy to be doing,” says the Morgan State University architecture major whose name has been changed in this story to protect her identity. “But when you’re applying for all of these jobs and no one is calling back, it’s like ‘Well, I have to do what I have to do.’”
Thousands of students at historically black colleges and universities nationwide know well the struggle of finding money for education. Loans, grants and scholarships provide assistance for few students working to navigate rising tuition costs, while many balance schoolwork with part-time or full-time jobs.
But steady unemployment across the nation, including a spike among African Americans as recent as last month, has put a premium on entry level and hourly-wage jobs historically staffed by college students. The result has driven some students to more controversial or illegal means of financing their academic goals.
It’s common for college students to see fast money as the most logical way of conquering the higher education hustle, even those who grind their way through menial jobs to make tuition and rent.
Will Arenas, a 2009 graduate of Virginia State University and an independent filmmaker, knows the struggle of balancing work and employment.
Arenas paid for his education working full-time jobs in retail, security and in movie theaters, and says that the experience can ostracize students from a rich college experience.
“You miss all of the social aspects and memories of college when you’re working. You don’t have time to make friends, and that’s if you can even find a job, because coming in, you don’t have a lot of experience. It can be frustrating.”
Arenas says that working full-time impedes the ability to focus on studying and classroom instruction, and says that the tandem of a minimized social life and the regular stresses of working can make the most dedicated college student choose alternative ways of getting fast money.
Veona began escorting after a stint working as an exotic dancer in downtown Baltimore. After being approached by patrons asking her for a private show, she reflects on three years working in a job and an industry that helps her earn more than $1,500 a day, doing everything from accompanying men on dates and outings, to working as a dominatrix.
“It’s not that bad for me, because a lot of my clients don’t want to have sex,” Veona says. “A lot of them just want someone to go out with them, to give them attention. But for those that want other things… its just business. If I’m going to be out here having sex, I might as well do it for money and to help me get to where I want to be.”
Last summer, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that 28 percent of black youth ages 16-24 were unemployed, nearly ten points higher than the rate for Hispanics, and nearly double the rate for whites. With the national student debt average hovering around $28,000, and with five historically black colleges making the list of the nation’s 20 highest debt-producing institutions, support from parents (in this case, Veona’s mother) isn’t enough to make loan debt worth the long-term expense. It also isn’t enough to cover tuition, books and living expenses associated with attending Maryland’s largest HBCU.
Earlier this month, think tank American Enterprise Institute reported that college textbook prices are 812 percent higher than they were a little more than three decades ago, outpacing the 559 percent increase in tuition and fees over roughly the same period.
Escorting isn’t the ideal employment option for Veona, but is indeed a lucrative one when it comes to her goals of one day owning an architecture firm and developing residential real estate. She continues to apply for legal work and for scholarships, and says that while she has never felt endangered while working as an escort, the possibility of arrest and incarceration are daily concerns.
Illegal means of earning money aren’t exclusive to HBCU students, however. In August, CNN reported on a website some students are turning to for college financial aid. SeekingArrangement.com, which bills itself as "the elite sugar daddy dating site for those seeking mutual beneficial relationships” reportely helped one student bring in $1,500 a month by way of its benefactor pool. Other students have turned to blood and egg donation the report said.
But some black college presidents say socioeconomic realities in black communities often force the issue in the desire to earn a college degree.
“Many communities across the country have used the presence of colleges and universities to jumpstart economic development of those communities,” says Paul Quinn College President, Michael Sorrell, Esq. “Sadly, this has not happened in a meaningful and equal way with the communities surrounding HBCUs, and consequently, the very students who need the employment opportunities these businesses would create are forced to go without them.”
Sorrell and Paul Quinn gained national acclaim in 2010 when they converted an unused football field into an organic farm. Since its creation, the WE Over ME Farm has provided more than 4,500 pounds of produce, which has been sold to restaurants in downtown Dallas, used to stock the college’s cafeteria and donated to needy families in the region. The farm is a core element of Paul Quinn’s Business Administration undergraduate degree program, and develops its student talent through a social entrepreneurship concentration designed to train future CEO’s in bringing economic development to underprivileged communities.
“We should not judge this young lady for the choice she has made in supporting her educational dreams – we’ve seen students everywhere do comparable things. Let’s judge the environment that could not provide her a real choice.”
“I’m thankful that at Paul Quinn, we have the ability to intervene and provide similarly situated students with an alternative.”
The Southern University System of Louisiana offers an entrepreneurial development program of its own at the college’s flagship Baton Rouge campus. The SU Center for Social Research Entrepreneurship Program provides training and resource programs to families in the city, from business plan development to loan access. System President Ron Mason says that students play an integral role in motivating economic growth in HBCU communities.
“The learning environment in HBCU communities extends beyond the campus borders. Part of economic development in these communities is helping students understand the role they play in building business through volunteerism, mentoring and knowledge transfer. They can inspire and help to create the jobs that, in turn, will help peers and future students with college access and affordability.”
Veona says that escorting isn’t a job anyone should be proud of or consider as a top option to finance education, but for those who are on the brink of choosing to stay in school or going home, she would recommend it as an “any means necessary” route for advancement. It’s a route that one psychological expert says is dangerous to start and difficult to end.
“Demoralizing behavior to earn money can become addictive,” says Dr. La Keita D. Carter, a college professor and psychologist in Baltimore. “Just like mood-altering substances such as drugs or alcohol, when done over years, there becomes a history of action that becomes habitual and isn’t easily reversible.”
“This habit is particularly difficult to break, because there’s a reinforcement that not only makes the action behaviorally hard to stop, but in this economic climate, essentially, ending it would make for a hazardous financial decision as well.”
“It’s hard to say what other people should do, but if there are people out there who don’t want to go to college because they think they can’t afford it, there’s always something you can do to make it happen,” says Veona. “I’m doing what I have to do to make it happen, and if I had to, I would choose this route again.”