Monday, July 22, 2013

Some presidents and advocates of the nation’s 105 historically black colleges & universities (HBCUs) are reportedly disappointed with President Obama.  Among their biggest gripes? Cuts in federal grant funding to the 105 institutions, as well as changes being made to the Parent PLUS Loan Program.

John Wilson, former executive director of the White House Initiative on HBCUs, reported this year that federal funding had in fact increased under Obama’s leadership.  However, Department of Education documents reveal that total federal grants had actually decreased from more than $742 million in 2010 to $680 million in 2012.  Records also indicate that federal grants and research awards to HBCUs for STEM developments fell from $661 million in 2010 to $573 million in 2011.

Obama’s handling of the Parent PLUS Loan Program has abandoned HBCU presidents and other leaders, including members of the Congressional Black Caucus.  Reps. Elijah Cummings (Maryland), Corrine Brown (Florida), and James Clyburn (South Carolina) have been notably outspoken in their oppositions to stricter credit history eligibility guidelines for parents.

The requirement that potential borrowers cannot have an adverse credit rating, for instance, has sharply slashed the number of parents who can qualify for the loan assistance.  Subsequently, student enrollment at all HBCUs has declined.  The Obama administration has repeatedly noted that the new statute is only intended to prevent people with poor credit histories from delving into deeper debt and financial ruin.

Despite this logical explanation, tensions between the Obama administration and HBCU advocates have not eased.  At a recent press conference, Rep. Cummings, a graduate of Howard University, said: “We believe the criteria ought to be more lenient. If you have 100,000 students and families that can’t get Parent PLUS loans, that’s a problem for us.”

The National Association for Equal Opportunity in Higher Education (NAFEO) reports that 28,000 students attending HBCUs were denied Parent PLUS loans last year due to the more restrictive policies.  William Harvey, chairman of Obama’s HBCU Board of Advisors and president of Hampton University since 1978, said the credit history change resulted in a loss of $150 million to HBCUs after students were refused loans.

Harvey told attendees at the annual NAFEO conference in April that HBCUs are in “the worst situation I’ve seen in 35 years.”  His university lost more than $6 million as a result of Parent PLUS rejections.  Howard University reportedly lost more than $7 million, while Spelman College lost more than $2 million.  Hampton, Howard, and Spelman are three of the nation’s top-ranked and most prestigious historically black institutions.

Johnny Taylor Jr., president and CEO of the Thurgood Marshall College Fund, an HBCU support organization, threatened to sue the Obama administration for what has been referred to by some as a “war on HBCUs.”

For many advocates, the biggest insult is that instead of selecting a permanent executive director of the White House Initiative on HBCUs to replace Wilson, who left to become president of Morehouse College in Atlanta, Obama appointed an acting director.

A group of former HBCU presidents and chancellors recently wrote to Obama, scrutinizing him for his “roller coaster” approach to funding for HBCUs. “Our concern,” they wrote, “is that you could leave office without having affected the necessary change in how the state and federal governments view, promote, support and fund HBCUs. That would be, in our opinion, a tragedy of untold proportion.”


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