President Barack Obama recently announced plans to rate the nation's colleges and university, and to tie federal funding for higher education appropriations and student financial aid to graduation rates, student debt, job earnings and post-baccalaureate degree pursuits. The goal: making college more affordable and valuable for families and students.
Accountability and information in the college selection process will create a new, expedited mandate for historically black colleges and universities to rise to new levels of performance. Age-old questions about how HBCUs recruit, keep and graduate students from a cross-section of high achieving and marginal academic readiness will now need more immediate solutions. These proposed changes can make HBCUs stand out as an affordable college option, and help them to earn more federal support.
Or, they can kill the HBCU mission and the institutional agents of its goals. The choice on the future of HBCUs under these reforms will be up to the Obama administration and its willingness to invite and listen to a diverse set of HBCU voices in the early stages of development and implementation.
Under President Obama's plan, schools that graduate the most students with the least amount of debt will receive consideration for funding to expand that success. Schools that admit poorer students, partner with community college and high schools for articulation agreements, and enhance instruction with reduced credit hours and online learning opportunities will also be rewarded. Students who keep up their grades will be able to maintain or grow opportunities to receive federal student aid.
HBCUs face a very real threat with these plans, as they historically have not had the public allocations or private philanthropy to foster growth and innovation which these reforms may demand. Poorer students are typically at greatest risk of not completing a degree in six years, if at all -- how will metrics that reward Pell Grant recipients and punish low graduation rates benefits schools that serve the largest portion of this at-risk student population?
Articulation agreements have become a recent staple of HBCU development, but without the opportunity to build attractive academic programs feeding state and regional industry growth, they will pale in comparison to similar programs at larger, better-resourced predominantly white colleges. And they will attract greater numbers of high-achieving black students who want the most affordable education with the greatest level of degree prestige possible.
More importantly, HBCU students and their inability to attend college without loans will further compromise the ability for HBCUs to stand out as institutions of distinction under these reforms. Most HBCU graduates leave school with debt, and lots of it. Not because the HBCU costs more than other schools, but because the average Black student without the means to pay for most or even some of their education stands to incur more debt and more owed interest than any other graduate over a six-year period.
These are just a few of the more pressing observations of President Obama's vision for a new higher education landscape. When you add these potentially harmful policies to the ongoing story of the HBCU PLUS Loan crisis, its easy to imagine that the Obama White House may not seek to damage Black Americans and the institutions which serve us, but doesn't have the right kind of advisors on behalf of Black Americans when it comes to educational policies.
The president doesn't need Ivy League-educated black folks at his table. That is already his perspective and the perspective of many of his trusted advisors. Those perspectives were forged in uncommon affluence, or hard-fought personal and professional battles to rise as black elite with political and financial clout to match. The Obamas, Valerie Jarrett and others mean well for black folks, but given their policy records, seem to be detached from the reality that Black excellence is not the rule in America, but the historically shaped exception.
Black colleges were created to make excellence the rule in black communities, to break the mold on the black American transition from bondage, poverty and sub-citizenship into sociopolitical and economic stewardship of our own communities. But as desegregation took its toll on communities, HBCU education was among its first and most profoundly damaged casualties.
The Obama administration has the chance to reverse this course, not by atoning or making reparations for the past, but by embracing the realities of race-based advocacy needed for future success. If the administration is willing to invite a diverse slate of voices to guide, instruct and criticize on his policy development for the nation, then the nation has the best chance of growing the schools with a mission of doing the nation's educational dirty work -- taking the unprepared and the poor and reforming them to become American innovators and leaders.
Rating schools without concern for historic inequities and contemporary challenges won't make college more affordable or more accessible. It will only give power to the notion that education is reserved for the rich and privileged, and that a president elected on the premise of change only made change to shift wealth and opportunity to those already in place to recognize and receive its benefits.