Obama’s reform plan ‘misplaced’ for HBCUs

Freddie Allen | 9/16/2013, 11:24 a.m.

WASHINGTON (NNPA) – President Barack Obama’s proposal to make colleges more affordable has some good points, but could disproportionately harm Historically Black Colleges and Universities, many of whom are already reeling from changes in the college student loan program that is causing fewer students to remain enrolled in Black colleges, according to education experts.

Obama recently outlined his college affordability plan during a two-day tour of Buffalo, Syracuse and Binghamton, N.Y.

The president wants to send more student financial aid to colleges that make efforts to lower costs while raising graduation rates. The college ratings system will track a number of metrics, including tuition costs, graduation rates, student debt and earnings of recent graduates. The information will be readily available for parents and students online.

According to the White House, the average tuition at a public four-year college has recently increased by 250 percent, eclipsing the rise in median family income that only increased 16 percent.

“The average student who borrows for college now graduates owing more than $26,000,” Obama said in Buffalo. “Some owe a lot more than that.”

Lezli Baskerville, president of the National Association for Equal Opportunity in Higher education, a non-profit umbrella organization of the nation’s HBCUs and Predominantly Black Institutions, said: “Measuring dollars as some indication of success of a college or university would be terribly misplaced.”

Julianne Malveaux, an economist and immediate past president of Bennett College for Women in Greensboro, N.C., agrees, saying because HBCUs service a different population than predominately White institutions, it would be difficult to design a national ratings system that would be fair and equitable to those distinct bodies.

“We have a culture of service in the Black community,” Malveaux said. “What if you want to go work as a social worker, but you would make more money as a corporate lawyer? Some of those metrics are counter-cultural.”

Higher education groups agree that providing families with transparent and accurate information that will assist them in making critical decisions about which college to choose, while pushing colleges to control costs and admit more low-income students are crucial steps in the right direction.

“The obvious goal of the program is something you can’t argue with,” said Johnny C. Taylor Jr., president and CEO of the Thurgood Marshall College Fund. “Objective good solid information can only be good for the community.”

But for Taylor and many other higher education advocates, the devil is in the details. He argues that the higher education landscape is too complicated for a solution that doesn’t take into account the diversity of the student population that it serves.

Taylor also said that in order to be effective, the ratings system must recognize the heavy-lifting that HBCUs undertake in educating many students who are ill-prepared for the rigors of college courses.

“Schools that take students with an eighth, ninth or 10th grade reading level and get those kids to and through college should be rewarded more than a school that brings in a student that has a good chance of making it through college,” Taylor explained.