HBCUs, Federal Government Must Find Middle Ground of Accountability

Historically black colleges and universities will not survive without support from the federal government, and the federal government won’t run at its optimal service capacity without engagement with and participation from HBCUs.

That’s one set of ideas that we can agree upon. Another idea we should begin to accept is that both the government and HBCUs are awful at understanding and publicizing their inherent importance to each other; and that this inability to meet in the middle on money and impact is tearing at what should be an ideal model for how the US can, and should, deal with its race problem.

White House Initiative on HBCUs Executive Director Ivory Toldson recently released a chronology of total grants and contracts awarded to HBCUs since 2002, a list encompassing the Bush and Obama administrations. That list, which did not include federal loan and grant tuition aid as part of its formula, is different from stats reported on the Department of Education’s Digest of Education Statistics, which is different from numbers outlined in the DOE’s annual report to the White House on HBCU funding. 

Three different stories coming from one federal agency, all for public consumption and shaping the narrative about the perceived lack of interest from the Obama Administration in black colleges and the communities they serve. Its very possible that these reports are built upon three different sets and interpretations of data, coming from agencies which have little mandate or oversight to report on if, or how they lend any financial support to HBCUs.

But when you match these discrepancies with Obama’s comments to legislators and students about the value of HBCUs, and pair those with changes to federal loan policies which cost HBCUs more than $300 million collectively between 2011-2013, it is easy to see why this narrative continues to dog the Obama White House.

Part of this narrative stems from the Department of Ed’s failure to alert the public of its primary higher education objective; to curtail fraudulent or negligent access to federal student aid funds, and to limit publicly subsidized tuition funding going to degree-traps which don’t help graduates get jobs. But the DOE and the feds should be more transparent with families and institutions about what shapes its view of this objective.

The government should let people know that it considers most HBCUs outside of the Morehouse-Spelman-Howard universe to be on par with the Corinthian Colleges of the world; high-risk institutions with high tuitions, high loan default rates and a shrinking percentage of graduates who can easily transition into advanced degree programs or entry-level work in their field of study.

The government took on Corinthian and won, and is taking on DeVry University and likely will win, on the notion that federal money was spent on a promise of education and jobs which never had any hope of materializing. The government believes HBCUs to be a broken, antiquated subgroup of higher education, but for now, there is little they can legally do to sever the relationship with these schools, in spite of how much they resent the costs and the bad press associated with them.

Along with states and corporations, the feds help to form a unilateral machine which violently sifts HBCU capacity, year by year, semester by semester. The federal government changes grant and loan standards and qualification rules, states cut higher education funding to public black colleges at catastrophic levels, and companies in booming industries don’t hire HBCU graduates.

Knowingly or unknowingly, the feds participate in a covert, public-private partnership working in concert against black institutions and outside of the core principle of democratic governance; to ensure that it does for the people what the people cannot do for themselves.

Without federal intervention or tax incentives given to the private sector for inclusion efforts, racial bias and discrimination will always run rampant in public grant and contract awarding, corporate talent recruitment and development and executive leadership access. The Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights has been active in monitoring and warning states like North Carolina, Louisiana, Florida, Georgia and South Carolina against constitutional violations created through excessive budget cuts and program duplication. Under Dr. Toldson’s leadership, the WHI-HBCU has dramatically improved its reporting to, and engagement with HBCUs on funding opportunities.

At the same time, agencies like the National Institutes of Health continue to allow racial disparities to exist in its grant funding.

At the same time, agencies fail to report HBCU funding, and remain casual about finding HBCUs of all sizes and missions which can qualify for funding based upon the alignment of agency programs and objectives. And as powerful as this culture has been and continues to be, HBCUs have seemingly acted as co-conspirators in their own demise.

HBCU executives, advocates and supporters cannot simply complain about injustice but continue to leave campuses vulnerable to the same. More black institutions must become more innovative in preparing for investment opportunities. Many private HBCUs still charge premium tuition rates for degree programs that are not competitive with cheaper college options with more highly-regarded academic offerings. Many public HBCUs have not realigned academic programs and campus culture to match industrial needs and funding trends, or to counter stereotypes, but wonder why in 2015, only two out of every ten black students enrolled in college attended an HBCU.

Many HBCUs are treading rough water to build enrollment, sponsored research and intellectual transfer into their surrounding communities. But those HBCUs which are surviving and building towards thriving? Those aren’t the schools Obama is talking about when he says students shouldn’t party their way to thousands of dollars of debt and a degree with no value, or a drop out.

The government has already outlined what it believes to be the path to survival for HBCUs – partnerships with community colleges and to improve retention and post-graduation outcomes. Those are the key elements of the America’s College Promise Act, which if passed, will force mostly smaller, private black college to make their strategic plans more attractive to the Department of Education, and will help to kill off those campuses which ignore the warning.

There are gaps in the proposed legislation; how will the federal government marry its encouragement of community college partnerships, and its parameters on transfer students counting towards four or six-year graduation rates?  How will the DOE make the program attractive enough for states to want to participate? How will the DOE define “retention and graduation reforms, practices and performance goals” when each HBCU still has to overcome public stigmas and growing competition from PWIs? And how long will HBCUs have to make themselves eligible?

There is a model for the nation to trudge its way forward on race relations in industry, society and and culture, and its starts with the government and HBCUs finding common ground. And that model has to be built on accountability.

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