President Obama today announced a plan “to combat rising college costs and make college affordable for American families,” which ties schools’ funding to a ranking determined by a number of indicators, with the aim of allowing Congress to tie funding to performance.
Under the plan, the Department of Education would develop a college scorecard based on tuition, graduation rates, debt and earnings of graduates, and the percentage of lower-income students who attend to determine how much students at a particular school should receive. It will also factor in the number of students receiving Pell grants, and average tuition, scholarships and loan debt.
The president also wants to award bonuses to schools based on the number of Pell grant-receiving students they graduate. Another proposed course of action would compel schools to disperse Pell grant funds on a rolling basis over the course of the semester, to combat Pell grant waste by students who drop out mid-semester. Students would be required to complete a certain percentage of classes before receiving any funds.
On the surface, these seem like effective policies. But many worry that HBCUs, which sometimes see lower four-year graduation rates, higher dropout rates (often related to unavailability of funds), will be face another funding blow in light of the policies.
“There’s no question that all of these policies have negative impact on historically Black colleges and universities,” said Alcorn State University President Dr. M. Christopher Brown, who called the president’s higher education policy “schizophrenic,” saying it is purporting to support the best students, not necessarily those with the most need, effectively “putting more water on moist soil” and tying institutions’ hands.
Dr. George French, president of Miles College, said, ““Accountability is good, however, we need to make sure that the implementation of such a plan does not cause small private institutions or HBCUs to suffer, particularly when they often serve a largely already-disenfranchised community.”
NAFEO president Lezli Baskerville said, “Because HBCUs are the most cost-efficient and… the most effective in graduating the growing population in the growth and high-needs areas … they would be warranted in receiving, certainly, dollars measured with their output. … We’re doing the lion’s share, heavy lifting in graduating growth populations that are high need, that would suggest that the best investment to colleges and universities that the federal government, the state, public and private philanthropists can make is in an HBCU.”
French emphasizes, as many HBCU advocates have throughout the saga that has been federal financial aid policies of late, the importance of seeking input from those affected by the policies.
“To that end, representation of all the stakeholders, need to be involved at the inception of the development of such a system to explore all aspects of the operations and to see if it is even feasible to implement. This undoubtedly must include HBCU presidents,” French said.
“It appears as though the administration is going to look at graduation rates, but … we will strongly urge that the administration look at more than just graduation rates,” Baskerville said, adding that because there has not been a “fair and equitable investment in our institutions,” factors such as mission, location and student needs are also taken into account.
“As HBCU’s we have a unique mission in regards to providing an open door policy for students pursuing a fighting chance. We want to give them just that, a chance,” French said. “There is no one size fits all remedy when comes to students and college completion or the overall graduation rate of an institution. These factors must be taken into consideration when we look at potential performance based funding models.”
Aaron Taylor, an education law professor at St. Louis University and a graduate of both North Carolina A&T and Howard Universities, said the proposed metric weighing the number of Pell-eligible students may actually provide a benefit to HBCUs, whose students are traditionally reliant on the aid. He said that critical to the success of this proposal for HBCUs will be the methodology used to determine peer groups by which the schools will be compared.
The proposed plan would take effect in 2015, when the scorecard would be applied to rank schools, and furthered in 2018, when their rankings would determine their aid eligibility.