First They Came For For-Profits: Are HBCUs Next On the Feds’ Kill List?

If you thought Senate Bill 873 in North Carolina was the greatest threat to historically black colleges and universities, then you haven’t been paying close attention to the federal government over the last eight years.

Since Barack Obama arrived in Washington, a majority of his higher education policy work and advocacy has been committed to two concepts – reduce the amount of people receiving federal subsidies for education through Pell Grants and student loans, and take out the schools most likely to enroll the students who need the grants and loans to attend college.

The strategy, masked beautifully through well-timed appearances and distracting talking points on race made at elite historically black college graduations by President Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama, augmented other strategic announcement and objectives – increases in Pell Grant funding, a proposal to make community college free for the entire country, a scorecard to tell families which four-year institutions gave families the best buy for their buck.

Unfortunately, the Pell Grant increases came with more stringent standards to qualify for the award, changes to the PLUS Loan program forced more than 100,000 HBCU students alone to stop their college careers, and universal condemnation from college presidents nationwide about federally sole sourcing community college has all but scrapped the two-year plan. These things have been talked about at length, and will be a significant blight on the Obama presidential legacy on education.

But it was Obama’s phantom punch to higher education that may prove the ultimate knockout blow to HBCUs, a series of moves made through the Department of Education to force the issues on accreditation and funding for underperforming schools, in the name of cost saving and eliminating predatory recruitment practices.

The for-profit education saga is designing a blueprint to eliminate schools which promise convenience and career-ready skill development for learners who want to get ahead in their lives. Corinthian Colleges was first; a $1.2 billion settlement with students who proved that the corporation defrauded them of marketable degrees and skills which the school promised would put them on the path of upward mobility.

Kamala Harris, a Howard University Law alumna and attorney general of California, won the judgment against Corinthians in March, and classified the victory as a win on behalf of the hopeful poor. From the Los Angeles Times:

“For years, Corinthian profited off the backs of poor people — now they have to pay. This judgment sends a clear message: There is a cost to this kind of predatory conduct.”

Last week, Harris joined nine other attorneys general throughout the country in appeal to the Department of Education to remove the Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools from its list of approved accrediting agencies serving as monitoring surrogates for institutions receiving federal aid disbursements for enrolled students.

ACICS was the accrediting agency for Corinthian, and other for-profit schools which could lose the irreplaceable DOE financial lifeline.

“The predatory scheme devised by executives at Corinthian Colleges, Inc. was unconscionable. And despite enforcement actions by the California Department of Justice and the federal government against Corinthian, ACICS continued to accredit Corinthian, hurting thousands of students in the process,” said Attorney General Harris. “Students relied on Corinthian’s accreditation status, believing they were obtaining a high quality-education with real job prospects. The Department of Education should not renew ACICS’ federal recognition and protect students from harm by predatory, for-profit colleges.”

Everyone agrees with punishing the criminal exploitation of some for-profits’ actions against well-intended students. But no one seems to see the foundation being laid in tandem with Obama’s other cost-cutting, institution gouging initiatives, or the impact this saga may have on HBCUs.

If accrediting agencies can be forced to box out underperforming member institutions under the name of price gouging, faulty advertising and low job entry statistics, what is to stop the DOE under Hillary Clinton, Donald Trump, or any other state or federal lawmaker to bring the same claim against smaller colleges with missions to serve those who may otherwise be denied higher education?

Beyond Spelman, Morehouse, Howard and Hampton, how many HBCUs are in legitimate position to refute any claim from a student or alumni litigant, or an aggressive attorney general, who would seek to paint HBCUs as degree mills which offer crushing student loan debt and low ROI on career advancement and graduate school admission?

If the precedent can be set with obvious transgressions from for-profits, but HBCUs continue to scratch out a place in the bottom of most performance-based metrics reports constructed without any positive narrative, context or accounting for the economic, social conditions of the students they enroll, what absolves HBCUs from a similar fate?

What would limit the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, Middle States Association of Colleges and Schools, or any other accrediting body from now seeing the writing on the wall about its own fate, and cutting away its weakest members to preserve the stability of its strongest schools?

If the federal government has made clear it will not continue to give money to schools which don’t produce quality graduates, and has proven it will go after accrediting agencies to make the point real, who is to say that HBCUs aren’t, or won’t soon be, expendable?

We can’t possibly believe that protesting on the steps of state capitals will work forever. For as many years as the black mobilization strategy has worked, and in many ways continues to work, white guilt will soon be over taken by big data and economic outlook. And if we didn’t realize all the changes with student grant and loan programs, shifts in legislative priority to two-year models of education and job training, and legal charges against low-performing schools were the signs of the historically black apocalypse, maybe it will take the very real potential of closure to help us put the pieces together.

Maybe Grambling State University will have to close as a result of instability in leadership, lack of funding and decreased enrollment. Maybe Saint Augustine’s University will lose its accreditation because there are not enough employees to manage SACS-required execution for student services, athletics, and its institutional Quality Enhancement Plan.

Maybe students stop enrolling at Elizabeth City State University and the school has to announce the suspension of operations. Maybe Savannah State University gets merged with Armstrong State University, or Southern University at New Orleans gets merged with the University of New Orleans.

Maybe it will take the worst of scenarios to help HBCU presidents, alumni, faculty and students wake up to see that the best laid plans of everyone outside of our communities, are made in order for HBCU communities to no longer exist.

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