Failing Our Future

The Republican Party recently announced it would spend $10 million in outreach to communities of color. In my view, any political party that wants the support of young voters of color should focus its attention on the need to improve access to higher education, as post-secondary education is still the best route to upward mobility for those who do not have a history of college education in their families. Despite our national rhetoric about the importance of a college-educated workforce, recent action (or inaction) at the federal level makes it harder every day for students to achieve that goal.

More and more of today's African American and Hispanic students in college are first-generation college students from families that simply cannot provide the financial assistance they need. Recent Department of Education changes in the assessment of credit-worthiness in the Parent Plus loan program have made it more difficult for parents to help finance their children's education. According to data provided by UNCF, African American families experienced the highest denial rates on PLUS loans in 2010, 65 percent as compared to 28 percent for white applicants. In 2012, the denial rates increased, causing havoc in student enrollment at historically Black colleges and universities as well as other institutions serving low-income students of color. While the Pell grant program has been spared from the five percent sequestration cuts in FY 2014, the Department of Education estimates that 330,000 students will lose their work-study employment.

Of even greater concern are the numbers of federal employees who will be furloughed or laid off as a result of sequestration. Historically, the federal government (including the military) has been a major source of employment for people of color, representing approximately one-third of the federal workforce. Sequestration means that federal employees will be subject to salary reductions through furloughs and/or loss of employment due to budget reductions. Those who work for companies that receive government contracts will also be negatively impacted. For example, according to a state-by-state analysis released Feb. 25 by the White House, my state-- Georgia--will lose about $485.8 million, including $428.1 million in salaries for civilian employees of the U.S. Defense Department and Army and Air Force base operations. For families trying to send their children to college, this is all bad news.

As a college president, I know the importance of containing costs and we have done that, offering an excellent education at a fraction of the cost of most selective colleges. Our graduation rate - nearly 80 percent -- is well above the national average. Our students and families recognize the value of the investment they are making in a college education, and we deliver an excellent return. But, when families in need of help cannot find it, we all suffer the loss. The stock market may be rising, but the future of our most available capital - talented young people who were not born into families of wealth - is looking dim. Anyone who can change that will almost certainly have the votes of young people of color - and mine, too. It is time to make an investment in the future of America.