The national HBCU Conference closed its final day in Washington D.C. yesterday, with lingering doubt from presidents and supporters of Black college about the Department of Education’s willingness to respect and react to the problems facing HBCUs.
From its opening moments, the Conference felt like a forced show of collaboration between two estranged business partners. President Barack Obama, who was in the region promoting new health care options, was a notable no-show at the first conference since presidents and members of Congress cried out for reprieve from the administration’s dramatic changes to a vital lending program for HBCU students.
US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan was on hand to set a tone of uneasy reconciliation, apologizing for the lack of communication with HBCU leadership about the changes, the latest of his earnest attempts, as described by some presidents, to build trust between the Department and HBCU leaders. In return, Hampton University President and White House Advisory Board on HBCUs Chairman William Harvey, affirmed a cautious Black college presidential consensus towards the DOE’s peace-offering, but watchful for its handling of existing problems.
Mounting deficits caused by PLUS loan eligibility changes enacted in 2011 continue to be the top priority for many HBCU presidents and chancellors. Leadership from the HBCU advocacy organizations have repeatedly asked for guidance documentation, and restoration of the PLUS loan program to pre-2011 eligibility standards.
But sources within the Department of Education say that the standards are unlikely to be amended, and that a proposed college scorecard, with metrics which may prove destructive to HBCUs, may also be here to stay. For HBCUs, already working to write new rules in recruitment and marketing against rising college costs, broadened college options and dwindling public funding, the effort appears to be a lost cause.
Some presidents hold hope for the new WHI-HBCU leadership tandem of Cooper and Ivory Toldson, the deputy director of the initiative. Through Toldson, a former senior research analyst with the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation and nationally respected voice on matters of education for African-Americans, many believe a compelling case for HBCU necessity will be made with proper data and perspectives on graduation rates, socioeconomic influences, and the learning and social outreach capacity which HBCUs uniquely, and almost exclusively, provide to the nation.
Many believe that consistent interface with federal agencies, follow up on grant opportunities, and reporting of HBCU appropriations will be renewed under Cooper, and will reverse poor relationship management, backroom advocacy for HBCU funding cuts and communicative negligence left by John Silvanus Wilson, former WHI-HBCU executive director and current Morehouse president, who also was noticeably absent from the conference.
But no amount of good vibes about the leadership can replace the $193 million lost over the last year in PLUS loan denials, and more than $350 million in total losses when combined with shortfalls in grants and contracts from federal agencies. When added to President Obama’s unwillingness to meet with HBCU leaders about the impasse over what legally can be done to solve the PLUS loan massacre of 2013, and what morally should be done to keep HBCUs solvent, prospects for a productive relationship appear grim.
The Obama administration has dug in its heels on the necessity for financial right-sizing and accountability in its lending programs, and while apologetic, remains non-committal to making exemptions for the nation’s Black colleges and minority serving institutions with a legacy of open access and the good and bad which accompanies the mission.
The national conference closed today with many laughs and smiles, promises made and skepticism at an all time high. So how much longer will the charade of partnership and the effort to overcome its hollow and frustrating impact remain worth it to Black colleges and their leaders?