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Why Black Colleges Might Sue the Obama Administration

Getty/Erik S. Lesser

Much has been made of President Obama’s commencement speech at Morehouse College, the prestigious school for black men that counts Martin Luther King, Jr. among its graduates. The Post’s Jonathan Capehart praised the president for the personal remembrances he wove into the speech, and for addressing the students “not as a distant president but as a familiar peer.” The Atlantic’s Ta-Nehisi Coates, on the other hand, upbraided him for relying on “convenient race-talk.” One thing is clear: The central point of Obama’s speech—“One of the things you've learned over the last four years is that there's no longer any room for excuses”—was a fair encapsulation of his views, if not about black Americans, then about historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs). Obama's message to HBCUs, which have struggled more than most to weather the recession, has been an exhortation about competing with mainstream schools, even as they serve less affluent students. But that kind of tough love only works if Obama upholds his end of the bargain in federal funding and policy—and many say he hasn't.

The president’s record on HBCUs is under scrutiny right now because of a change the Department of Education made to its student loans policy in 2011, which has forced an estimated 28,000 students who were enrolled in HBCUs to drop out for lack of funds, costing these 105 schools about $150 million in expected revenue. The new practice expands the types of default the DOE checks for in the past five years of a parent’s credit history (a period that neatly spans the recession) to include upaid accounts that have been referred to a collections agency or deemed uncollectible. (The DOE says it wasn’t properly interpreting its own rules under the old system.) As a result, the number of PLUS loans granted was unexpectedly cut in half. Black schools' advocates and students have been decrying the policy for almost two years, but the rising tension burst wide open last month when Howard University, the wealthiest HBCU with an endowment of around $460 million, announced it was in financial straits.

This summer, education officials are traveling to HBCU campuses, holding hearings to inform a revision of policy—but the predominant suggestion has simply been to revert to the old system, which the DOE claims it legally can’t do. Acting Deputy Secretary for Education Jim Shelton says they hope to rewrite the rules sometime next year. But with no fix on the horizon, HBCUs and their advocates are trying to figure out how to ensure the class of 2017 can afford to show up this fall. They’re even considering suing the administration.  

“We’re doing everything to avoid going to the courts, but that is absolutely an option,” Johnny Taylor of the Thurgood Marshall College Fund told me. “We cannot have a rule that impacts our community as significantly as this one does.” Taylor says his organization will initiate a suit this summer if it becomes clear the DOE won’t act before August, when students have to decide whether they can go to school or not. But the community is divided about what the HBCU Digest has called “the nuclear option aimed at the wrong enemy.” The Digest worries a suit against Obama could divide alumni loyalties and put college presidents “in the position of explaining why HBCUs are coming after ‘our president’”—a nod to Obama’s layered relationship with HBCUs, which was on display at Morehouse—but it also suggests a simpler fact. Obama is the “wrong enemy” because he has, at least until the current contretemps, largely been a good president for HBCUs. 

The Department of Education calculates that the Obama administration boosted total spending on HBCUs, including everything from financial aid to agency grant money, from three billion dollars in 2007 to over four billion in 2011. This may be a bit generous: Funding went up overall because Obama has been increasing spending on aid, of which HBCUs receive a hefty chunk since about two-thirds of their students receive Pell Grants (which only go to the neediest), compared to under 15 percent of students at most other American schools. The administration’s direct spending on HBCUs fell about $145 million between 2010 and 2011; still, during a lean first term, the DOE avows that Obama worked hard to preserve black colleges' piece of the pie. Obama’s proposed allotment to HBCUs in 2013, $228 million, stayed level with 2012, despite cuts elsewhere.

“In some places our aid has gone up and in some places we’ve held the line, but in the context of an economy where we’re seeing cuts across the board, the only fair way to look at that is as a measure of our support for these institutions,” DOE spokesman Daren Briscoe said.

It seems like a smart investment: HBCUs constitute three percent of America’s colleges but produce 20 percent of black graduates, 50 percent of black public school teachers and lawyers, 80 percent of black judges, and 90 percent of black BA’s in STEM fields. Obama certainly had these numbers in mind when he pledged $1 billion to black colleges over the course of ten years, and said in a speech, shortly after he announced in 2009 that he wanted America to lead the world in college graduates by 2020: “We cannot reach that goal without HBCUs.” 

That praise came hand-in-hand with what many called a new doctrine for HBCUs. In 2009, John Silvanus Wilson Jr., Obama’s appointee to head the White House Initiative on Historically Black Colleges and Universities (Wilson left to take the helm of Morehouse in 2012), told Inside Higher Ed that HBCUs needed to change their narrative: "[The] soundtrack … is dominated by violins,” he said, talking specifically about black colleges’ fundraising tactics, “and we need to go out and seek support where the soundtrack is trumpets. … The trumpet is about greatness and the violin is about pity." 

But that’s not a change black colleges can make without support, and though Obama has devoted more funds—and a lot more lip service—to them than his predecessors, it's still not enough. Last year, William Harvey, chairman of the President’s Board of Advisors on Historically Black Colleges and Universities, pointed out that in 2010, at the height of Obama's commitment to HBCUs, federal agencies only allotted 1.7 percent of their total grants for higher education to HBCUs, even though HBCUs comprise three percent of schools. Health and Human Services directed only one percent of its college and university grant funding to HBCUs; Defense sent less than one. If the administration were to calculate HBCUs' fair share according to their relative wealth, or the financial need of their students, it would be a lot more than 1.7 percent, and a lot more than three. "The state of black colleges and universities could be and should be better,” Harvey said last year, but it seems Obama isn't listening.  

Because HBCUs serve disproportionately poor students, they are dependent on tuition for their operating costs. The recession has decimated black wealth—Census Bureau figures from 2010 put the median net worth of black households at about $5,000, 22 times less than white households' net worth of roughly $110,000—and the HBCUs' enrollment has dropped, hastened by the PLUS Loan debacle. They don’t have the savings that other schools are using to ride out the rough patch: Combined, the endowments of every black university in the country come to less than two billion dollars; Harvard’s endowment is $19 billion. St. Paul’s College in Virginia just became the latest to close its doors for good. Even “Black Ivies” like Morehouse are furloughing faculty and staff.

Meanwhile, Obama's rhetoric is less kind to HBCUs than his policies. In the second term, his higher education planks are all about “accountability”—a good buzzword, but a relative term when applied to schools comprised more than 50 percent by first-generation college students. Obama rolled out his  “College Scorecard,” which is supposed to help students pick the school with the most bang for your buck, with much fanfare this winter. Widely panned by experts, the Scorecard made HBCUs look particularly bad. Its primary measures are cost, which has climbed quickly at some HBCUs since they only have tuition to survive the recession, and graduation rates, which look dismal next to the numbers at schools with almost uniformly affluent populations. As Walter Kimbrough, president of Dillard University in New Orleans, told the AP, “It's simple economics. If you get rid of poor kids, your graduation rates can go up.”

This is not to say that rising costs, and dropout rates, at black colleges aren’t a problem. Taylor pins some of this on a history of mismanagement, and a weak philanthropic tradition. “I think the biggest challenge for HBCUs is a governance challenge,” he said, adding, “our community is socialized to give to one institution, and that is the church.” Many feel that black colleges are still seeking a new identity now that segregation is a thing of the past, and their troubles long precede the PLUS loan mess. Last week, higher education expert and University of Pennsylvania professor Marybeth Gasman told NPR, “Every few years, HBCUs are at a crossroads. The first thing that happens is that when a school gets into financial trouble, people say 'Oh, no, HBCUs are going down the drain.'" Obama isn’t the only one suggesting that HBCUs need to move forward with “accountability” in mind, and an eye to how they’re competing with mainstream schools. 

Still, Gasman and others think Obama could do more to acknowledge what black colleges contribute to the education landscape. A critique of the College Scorecard she co-wrote with Michael Nettles of the University of Michigan suggests, “Scorecards of the future might include … next-generation criteria, like proportion of students who are the first in their families to attend college or the proportion qualifying for maximum financial aid,” which “may tell more about the institutions, and may help to explain some of their seemingly low productivity on other criteria like graduation rates or high loan-default rates.” 

If Obama wants HBCUs to be a bright spot on his legacy, he needs not just to clear up the PLUS loan disaster, but to step up aid (preferably in the form of student grants more than loans). And his administration needs to acknowledge that no school, no standard of accountability, can yield college graduates from all backgrounds if it doesn’t start by admitting freshman from the poorest ones—something HBCUs take far more seriously than their peers. It's not just Obama's HBCU legacy, but his mark on higher education that's at stake here: Historically black schools provide far from a perfect vision of how to educate minority and low-income students, but right now, it’s the best model we’ve got. 

This post has been corrected to more accurately reflect the DOE's change in practice.

Nora Caplan-Bricker is an assistant editor at The New Republic. Follow her on Twitter @ncaplanbricker.