Thurgood Marshall College Fund President and CEO Johnny Taylor recently made headlines by suggesting historically black colleges and universities would consider suing the Obama Administration for changes to the federal PLUS loan program that have forced massive dropouts and have collectively cost HBCU campuses more than $100 million dollars in tuition revenue. At issue, more stringent credit requirements on borrowers that could limit or disqualify them from getting the loan.
The consensus quietly raging among many prominent presidents and chancellors is that the Obama Administration is continuing a streak of impersonal, impenetrable understanding of black colleges. HBCU leaders are resigned to an emerging reality of a final Obama term that will give a lot of surface-level talk to appease black college supporters, but little financial or cultural leverage for these institutions.
You can understand why Taylor, charged with managing an advocacy organization for the nation’s public HBCUs, would seek to turn this policy change into a question of social justice. But it is hard to understand why he would put TMCF member presidents in the position of explaining why HBCUs are coming after ‘our president.’ Alumni reaction to an Obama lawsuit would not only divide loyalties, but force black college leaders and prominent alumni with political clout to explain the motive and the reasoning, and to assess the social impact of backing the president for the good of our people, despite an unclear vision of how immediate or eventual that good will be.
The Obama Administration is trying to cut default rates on student loans, and in current political and economic climates, it is hard to argue how that isn’t good policy. Barring unqualified borrowers from taking on loans they can’t pay back with wages they can’t earn from jobs that don’t exist is a bipartisan stroke that, while keeping poor black folks on the outskirts of access to higher education access, gives this administration more leverage to justify funds going in other directions which may indirectly benefit the same group. Job creation, housing subsidies, tax breaks, and other social programming are a few that may reap the benefits, and are the real keys to college affordability.
Instead of focusing on what the Obama Administration has failed to do from a federal level, any kind of legal inquiry into poor black folks being denied education at four-year HBCUs should be directed at state lawmakers. After all, it is states which are better equipped to offer deserving students with subsidies for attending college where they live. States like Mississippi, Virginia and Louisiana are making concessions for students bordering their states to receive in-state tuition rates, and cities like Washington D.C. subsidize tuition for residents attending school anywhere in the country, and add more money for students seeking education at private HBCUs.
And it is the stonewalling of state representatives in Congress that make moves like the PLUS loan modification necessary for Obama to gain any traction on other pressing issues requiring reform.
Litigation has proven to be the last and best result of securing resources for black colleges. But this isn’t the US v. Fordice, Knight v. Alabama or the Coalition for Excellence and Equity v. Maryland; it is America versus debt and HBCUs versus the unfulfilled promise of a black president and his want to do more for black people and black colleges. Suing the Obama Administration may lead to a small solution in getting money for HBCU students, but it completely passes over the responsibility of state government and its role in reforming educational access.
The fight isn’t about the right to secure high-interest loans that are difficult to repay, but in questioning why loans are the only path to college affordability in the first place.