Can imperiled HBCUs survive by suing the Obama Administration?

Thurgood Marshall Fund CEO Johnny C. Taylor Jr,

Thurgood Marshall Fund CEO Johnny C. Taylor Jr, is mulling a lawsuit to restore equitable loan guidelines and funding for HBCUs.

By Carmen Glover

Proud graduates of Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) are quick to extol  the virtues of attending their specific alma mater: the comfort of being around people who look like them, camaraderie on campus, the ability to learn more about their history, and most importantly, the cache that comes professionally when their alma mater is mentioned in industry settings. And, indeed, statistics support the root cause of such enormous pride. According to available data, the nation’s 106 HBCUs have made an indelible mark on educational gains, awarding African-Americans 1.5% of associate’s degrees, 16.9% of bachelor’s degrees, 7.6% of master’s degrees, 8.1% of doctoral degrees and 17 % of professional degrees, through 2010. Most significantly, HBCUs make up 3% of the total number of colleges and universities in the country yet account for 22% of all bachelor’s degrees in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) concentrations.

Economist and former Bennett College President Julianne Malveaux.

Economist and former Bennett College President Julianne Malveaux.

However, endowments to HBCUs have declined precipitously over the years, which, combined with new restrictive qualifying policies for student loans, have led to disastrous results for students and families who are eager to embrace the traditions which abound at HBCUs. Educators have expressed outrage at the Obama Administration for revising the loan guidelines so exhaustively that many African-American parents who previously qualified for Parent Plus Loans no longer do so, resulting in hundreds of discouraged students being forced to abort their educational pursuits mid-stream due to their inability to finance their education at the institutions of their choice.

Department of Education Secretary Arne Duncan.

Department of Education Secretary Arne Duncan.

Speaking recently on TVOne, former Bennett College President Julianne Malveaux was blunt: “Many students who drop out of HBCUs focus on getting jobs and saving their money so that they can return to finish their education,” she said. But she further explained that because the students have to suspend their educational goals temporarily, that decision hurts the HBCUs in another important way as well. “Colleges and universities are given four to six years to graduate students with undergraduate degrees,” she explained. When that doesn’t happen, the HBCUs face the added danger of losing accreditation and funding, leading to them losing staff and course offerings.

The cycle seems to be vicious and various groups who have raised attention to the issue. In fact, some groups have entertained the possibility of pursuing legal actions against the Obama Administration in order to apply pressure in having the policies regarding the Parent Plus Loan qualifying requirements reversed. Johnny C. Taylor Jr., CEO of the Thurgood Marshall College Fund which raises money for HBCUs, has vowed to sue the Obama Administration in an effort to roll back the restrictive loan qualification policies. Education Secretary Arne Duncan has described the furor about the new policies as “communication” errors, while declining to address the substance of the policies in general.

“HBCUs are struggling, laying off faculty, sending students home,” Taylor said on the show, describing the likelihood of the lawsuit as “upwards of 75% chance,” unless the Obama Administration comes to the table to talk and resolve differences on the matter in a way that all stakeholders view as satisfactory. Regardless of what transpires with his plans to sue, one thing is clear: HBCUs are in serious danger of being adversely affected by new policies. In the meantime, students and families suffer, forced to suspend their educational dreams, with some abandoning their educational goals entirely. It is important for families to explore alternatives, such as enrolling in state colleges and community colleges, where tuition is cheaper than at a private college.

While it is admirable for families to strive for private colleges and universities, some of which include HBCUs, the larger goal of ensuring that students graduate from colleges and universities should take precedence over insistence that they attend HBCUs. For their part, HBCUs have no choice but to revise their financial models and revamp their operational structures so that they are able to function and remain viable and competitive in an ever-changing economic and educational environment. To do otherwise will further imperil their survival even more.