Walden University and The False Promise of Upward Mobility for Black Women
Black women are grossly underrepresented in doctoral education, earning only 3% of doctorates awarded in the US each year. For the few of us who make it to and through doctoral education, many of us see the doctorate as an opportunity to change the trajectory of our lives and our communities.
Despite being “the most educated group” in America, our dreams of leveraging formal academic credentials to catalyze our upward mobility are often costly, as Black women bear the heaviest burden of student loan debt, completing their degrees with nearly 3x the amount of debt as the national average. Though the Biden/Harris administration has pushed moderate student loan debt policy forward, loan forgiveness of $10,000 barely makes a dent in the more than $160,000 of graduate debt that 22% of Black doctoral degree holders have.
The often-quoted statistic that Ph.D. holders earn $1.3 million more over their lifetimes than those with bachelor’s degrees is based on differences in compensation for white men. For Black women, the rewards of a graduate degree are far less significant, and nowhere near guaranteed — especially when race and gender wage gaps are factored in. So why do we persist in accumulating substantial loans to pursue doctoral education, when the benefits seem disproportionately elusive for Black women? And who is to blame for this crisis? The government, which has money to fund wars but not eradicate student loan debt? Individuals, who are misguided in their pursuit to get advanced degrees? Or institutions that do not adequately recruit, retain, or support — financially or professionally — Black women doctoral students?
Ironically, some of the institutions that are the worst offenders for loan debt produce the most number of advanced degrees in the Black community. Walden University, a private, online, for-profit institution, awards 1,500 doctoral degrees to Black people each year — the most of any institution and 6 times more than Howard University. According to a class action lawsuit that was filed against the university in 2022, Walden has engaged in “reverse redlining,” intentionally and deceptively targeting and promising Black women interested in doctoral education a quick and cost-effective path to the degree.
Though the lawsuit is still pending, the claims add up to me. After all, a visit to Walden’s website may leave you thinking that it was a subsidiary of Spelman; Black women are featured prominently on their home and application pages, appearing more than any other demographic. The advertising works: in 2016, 40% of Walden doctoral students identified as Black, and 75% identified as female. Despite these allegations, Black women are still applying to and struggling through doctoral degrees at Walden University, in a number of different programs.
As the founder and Executive Director of Cohort Sistas, a nonprofit that advances racial equity in doctoral education by centering the needs and perspectives of Black women and nonbinary individuals, I wanted to better understand why Black women continued to pursue doctoral degrees at Walden and whether they were satisfied with their education, mentorship, and training.
After putting a call out to the 3,000 scholars in our community, I spoke to five current or former Walden University doctoral students who identify as Black women, to get their perspectives on whether Walden was a beacon of hope for Black women pursuing doctoral degrees, or a predatory institution clamping down on the dreams of Black upward mobility.
Why Black Women Pursue Doctoral Degrees at Walden
The average doctoral program takes 4–7 years to complete, and while some programs are fully funded, meaning that doctoral students receive tuition and a stipend from their universities, doctoral stipends — when they do exist — are well under a living wage. Earning under $30,000 for 5 years was out of the question for the women I spoke to, some of whom had been in the workforce for a decade before returning to school, and who simply could not afford the pay cut.
Doctoral students are typically expected to devote their full attention to their studies, which can include additional work for the university like serving as a teaching assistant or research assistant or completing a certain number of trainee clinical hours in fields like psychology. Most in-person PhD programs are not designed to accommodate working students as classes and seminars are in the daytime. All five scholars I spoke with worked while pursuing their doctoral degrees, which made the flexibility of Walden’s asynchronous coursework appealing.
For Laquanna, a former Walden doctoral student, Walden’s online format seemed perfect for her, as she lives in the rural South and the closest state school with doctoral degrees is two hours away. As the primary caregiver for her grandmother, enrolling in an in-person doctoral program was not an option.
Ultimately, Walden’s online structure appeals to Black women who are already immersed in their careers, want to accelerate the doctoral degree process, are caregivers and/or the heads of their households, and do not live near doctoral degree-granting institutions.
Affordable Degree or Financial Scam?
As someone who attended an in-person doctoral program and received a fellowship that covered my tuition and stipend, I admittedly never knew the cost per credit of my doctoral courses. However, nearly every person I spoke to highlighted the perceived affordability of their doctoral degree as one of the primary factors that led them to Walden, with a level of financial specificity that reflects the importance of money in their decision.
Syreeta, who earned a Doctor of Business Administration from Walden in 2022, began her program under the impression that it would take just two years and cost $40,000, as she was allowed to transfer credits from her previous degrees. Her doctoral degree ended up taking five years and costing more than $140,000 out of pocket.
Despite the apparent transparency of Walden’s fee structure — each doctoral program lists the cost per course or credit hour — several scholars highlighted an opaque tuition model that led to compounding fees. Students require special permission to enroll in more than one class concurrently, so scholars who wanted to accelerate their degree, particularly during the height of the pandemic, were sometimes unable to do so. The university also did not provide any tuition discounts for taking multiple classes at once — one scholar hinted that the tuition and course registration process was designed to prolong one’s time in the program, therefore forcing them to spend more money on registration fees.
Leave of absences were also not readily granted. When Syreeta had a baby during her doctorate, Walden did not permit her to pause her program and tuition payments. Pay, or withdraw, was the message she received.
Administrative and Advising Chaos
Although the total cost of their doctoral degrees surprised each of the women I spoke to, the most common complaint they shared was the disorganization of the administrative and advising elements of their programs, which added an emotional burden on top of the financial strain of their doctoral degrees.
Ori, a current doctoral student, was disappointed in the lack of clear communication about residency and internship expectations for her fully virtual counselor education doctoral program. These requirements, such as mandatory virtual supervision of her internship, were often announced at the last minute, which meant Ori had to scramble to request time off from work and rearrange her personal schedule and travel plans.
Laquanna was so dismayed with the quality of instruction and mentorship in her program at Walden, that she transferred and is now completing her doctoral degree at another institution. For a school that has such a high enrollment and has existed for so long, Laquanna expressed surprise that Walden had not yet perfected the online learning structure. Despite the interruption, she believes that she will be able to complete her doctoral degree a year sooner at her new school than if she had remained at Walden.
Charlie*, who is pursuing a doctoral degree in counselor education, was surprised to learn that her Walden program expected her to complete all her internship hours within just a few months. Internships, as well as teaching assistant positions, which other scholars held, were unpaid at Walden, and Charlie works while completing her degree — first she held a full time position as a school counselor, but is now a part time adjunct professor.
Walden’s advising structure also delayed some scholars’ progress. Tiffany*, a Walden doctoral student in the field of management, was initially assigned a doctoral chair who was not only unsupportive of her proposed doctoral research but felt threatened by her scholarship. After being at a standstill for several months, Tiffany was able to switch advisors and continue her dissertation research. While changing doctoral advisors is not unusual in other institutions, at Walden, a delay in communication between a student and their advisor can lead to prolonged enrollment and more fees. Near the end of Syreeta’s program, her dissertation chair submitted the incorrect version of a form that she needed to graduate, and she ended up missing the deadline to participate in that semester’s graduation ceremonies by one week.
Should Black Women Pursue Doctoral Degrees at Walden?
I asked each of our scholars whether they would recommend Walden to other Black women interested in a doctoral degree. Their responses ranged from absolutely not to yes, with some caveats. A Walden doctoral program may be suitable for Black women who desire a flexible program structure and who are unable to move in order to complete their doctoral studies. However, interested students should ask as many questions as possible prior to enrollment, particularly around graduation requirements and program expectations, which often caught the women I spoke to by surprise. Each program has its own nuances, so consult current students and alumni to get their unbiased opinions on the pros and cons of the program.
The lack of community made each scholar’s doctoral journey at Walden even more challenging. Whether you are thinking about pursuing a doctoral degree or in an online or in-person doctoral program, having a community of like-minded people who understand your struggles and concerns can be the difference between feeling like your dream is out of reach and feeling empowered and supported to continue. That’s what Cohort Sistas is for — join the community of doctoral applicants, scholars, and degree holders to support your own doctoral journey.
* Names have been changed to protect privacy.