Is Barack Obama, the nation’s first African American president, trying to kill Historically Black Colleges and Universities?
If he’s not, he’s going to have a difficult time convincing HBCU presidents, trustees and alumni. Surprisingly, Obama has become their worst nightmare.
Neither Obama, the First Lady, the Secretary of Education or the president’s closest advisers attended an HBCU and, consequently, are tone death in recognizing what is broadly viewed as sound policy can inadvertently harm our nation’s HBCUs.
President Obama’s proposal that the federal government pick up the tab for a worthy student’s first two years of community college is a case in point. Without a doubt, a move toward free, universal higher education is an excellent decision.
But if the president had consulted the major organizations representing HBCUs, he would have heard suggestions on how to tweak his proposal so that it would not needlessly harm Black colleges, which it is certain to do.
The amended Higher Education Act of 1965 defines an HBCU as: “…any historically black college or university that was established prior to 1964, whose principal mission was, and is, the education of black Americans, and that is accredited by a nationally recognized accrediting agency or association determined by the Secretary [of Education] to be a reliable authority as to the quality of training offered or is, according to such an agency or association, making reasonable progress toward accreditation.”
HBCUs enroll only 3 percent of college students yet are responsible for nearly 20 percent of all bachelor degrees awarded to African Americans. In some fields, the figures are significantly higher.
President Obama noted, “America thrived in the 20th century in large part because we had the most educated workforce in the world. But other nations have matched or exceeded the secret to our success.” And the U.S. can’t afford to lose the valuable contributions of HBCUs.
HBCUs compete directly with community colleges. Both enroll students who may need some additional tutoring or training before they are college ready. More importantly, students who enroll in community colleges and HBCUs are in dire need of financial assistance. If you make the first two years of college free to community college students – and not to HBCUs – you don’t have to be a rocket or social scientist to see that Black colleges will come out the losers.
And the bleeding doesn’t stop there.
If and when community college students decide to continue their education, they may be more inclined to transfer to a state-supported public university, where costs are cheaper than those of a private or public HBCU. In many instances, that state-supported university might accept all of the student’s credits whereas the Black institution might accept some of them.
Public HBCUs are likely to suffer under this scenario as well. If a Black student has attended a community college in Alabama, for example, he or she may be more prone to enroll in the University of Alabama or Auburn than they would if they had initially enrolled in Alabama A&M University or Alabama State. And given the costs, those students might totally bypass Tuskegee University, Talladega College or Stillman College, all private institutions.
Colleges such as Spelman and Morehouse, though harmed, can probably sustain the drop in enrollment. But without any adjustments, it could be the death knell for many others, including Miles College, Tougaloo, Paine and my alma mater, Knoxville College, which already has a foot in the grave.
With Republicans now in control of the House and Senate, it would have been far wiser for Obama to huddle with Republicans – whose presidents have been strong supporters of HBCUs over the years – to come up with a proposal that both sides could support. Going it alone, especially in this environment, virtually guarantees that the America’s College Promise program will go nowhere.
What should be done?
As one educator told me, it would have been better if Obama had said the federal government would pick up the first two years at a two- or four-year college. That would be better for most HBCUs. Because public tax dollars probably would not be designated for private colleges, the private and religious-affiliated institutions would still be in a bind.
As for the Republican majority accustomed to saying “no” to everything when they were out of power, education would be a good thing to say “yes” to. And correcting the blunders made by the White House may even help in reaching out to a broader political base, a goal the GOP claims it wants to achieve.
In the meantime, this new community college proposal, coming on the heels of the administration dropping the ball on Parent PLUS student loans that caused some HBCUs to lose as much as 20 percent of their student body and a proposed federal rating system that could also disadvantage some HCBUs, has some of Obama’s ardent supporters wondering if this is part of a plan to kill Black colleges. If it’s not, it may have the same sad effect.
George Curry is the former editor-in-chief of Emerge magazine and is currently editor-in-chief of the National Newspaper Publishers Association News Service