How HU Resist and Rihanna Just Made Howard Financial Aid Issues Much Worse

Students and staff receiving hundreds of thousands of dollars in improper financial aid awards at Howard University made big news earlier this year, setting off a chain of events involving investigations, administrative turnover, and massive student protests. Those events have landed the Mecca in a federal program that will grind an already under-resourced financial aid division to a virtual standstill, and will put its already vulnerable financial profile in brighter spotlight.

If the same students, faculty and staff feel that Howard being on heightened cash monitoring status with the US Department of Education is the necessary disinfectant for what poisons the school’s operational issues, nothing could be further from the truth.

In a few months when students are struggling to reconcile loan and grant aid for the spring 2019 semester, when confirmations are slow to come in and when payments are slow to post, when schedules are dropped and prospects for graduation are uncertain for dozens or hundreds of students, they should remember those moments which led to Howard’s PR and financial public narratives growing more troublesome in the name of progress.

Forget the Washington Post and Valerie Strauss’ latest context-devoid hit on the university and the negative national press it could cause in recruitment and philanthropy for the nation’s flagship HBCU. Forget that an undermanned division trying to serve nearly 10,000 students with virtually each requiring some form of DaVinci code-level financial aid riddle solving to keep them in school now has double the work to process, affirm and reconcile each account for the university to pay their tuition and prove to the feds that a student is enrolled and to receive the money back from the ED’s Title IV program.

Forget that Howard’s issues are nowhere near as criminal or as harmful as those which have been discovered at schools like Columbia University, where a former financial aid director received nearly $375,000 in kickbacks over six years from students to whom she over-awarded tuition assistance payments. Or at Stanford University, where revelations about financial aid award gender and ethnic bias in its business school have forced major changes.

Forget that those elite private PWIs with all of the resources in the world probably won’t be placed on the federal financial aid penalty program for their transgressions, or that they’ll earn far less coverage for their sins against students and policy.

Forget that just last year, West Virginia’s entire system of public colleges and universities were placed on the heightened cash monitoring list not for wrongdoing or misappropriated money, but because the state has issues with turning in paperwork to the ED on time. And forget that federal lawmakers came to the system’s defense with public statements on how harmful they believed the ED’s decision to be.

The decision to impose sanctions will not harm those at fault for the late submission, but would instead harm low-income West Virginia students. The students are completely innocent and in most need of our help, which is why we implore the Department to reconsider its decision to place schools on a provisional status and heightened cash monitoring.

Forget that Michigan State University was placed on the list earlier this year, not because of financial aid issues but because of the crisis surrounding a culture of rampant sexual assault created by former employee Larry Nassar – a sanction described by Detroit News columnist Ingrid Jacques as little more than a warning.

So what does this mean exactly? For now, it’s mainly a symbolic gesture, letting MSU know that the Student Aid office has its eye on the university, and that it does not have confidence in the institution’s administrative capacity. Heightened cash monitoring basically makes schools jump through more procedural hurdles to draw down federal student aid funds.

Forget all of those things. Remember this.

That was the moment in time when the Department of Education received permission to punish Howard, fairly or unfairly, for all of its issues. When students and social media made Howard’s struggle so public, so funny and so sad in the eyes of so many, it created the opportunity for the ED to add one more high profile institution to a list designed to expedite the demise of predatory for-profit schools and struggling private institutions, including several HBCUs.

What all of those students, faculty and staff who wanted to make Howard protest history in the name of improving Howard don’t know, and couldn’t have known is that federal funding for higher education is a go-to tool in political gamesmanship. Barack Obama used campus sexual assault and post-graduation earning and loan debt outcomes as talking points in the platform of how democrats care about higher education and students.

The Trump Administration is doing the same with loan forgiveness and deferments and stabilized funding to HBCUs. And the HBCU community, whether we admit it or not, is grateful for it; but the wisest among us know that it is all a game that can change on any given election night every few years.

When schools play ball politically, they can reap the benefits of political jockeying. But there’s a funny thing about the federal government; they also have a job to do in maintaining public trust in programs funded with taxpayer money. And when organizations force their hand to show that taxpayer money is in good hands, those hands get a lot heavier when officials are forced to slap something or somebody in the name of oversight.

Howard University is not infallible, and never has been. It is susceptible to the same issues of human greed, ambition, and intellect when it comes to individual actors’ capacity to game systems for their own benefit. Black colleges and black people are not perfect; even if institutions like the justice system and the media expect us to be more than our white counterparts.

We shouldn’t look for perfection as the goal, individually or institutionally. Instead, unity and strategy should be the aim. We should take what we know about the systems of white supremacy and discrimination and work within them, not towards a Utopian view of being equal to who and what makes things unequal for our suffering.

Howard University and Columbia and Stanford are very much alike. They take in all of the best students willing to enroll and work to make the world better through training them. But where they are different is very clear and present. Two of the three have enough money and influence to stem the institutional impact caused by a few bad actors, and all of their good actors rise to the challenge of publicly separating what is an institutional shortcoming versus an individual threat to the institution.

But only one of them has a culture where its stakeholders believe disruption and destruction to be an answer to individual threats. And then are willing to add a soundtrack to the misplaced strategy, and unwilling to see the error of their ways.

8 comments
  1. So I’m truly wondering what was the point of this article? Giving reference to the PWI and their issues isn’t saying much? As a former Director of Financial Aid at Howard, I am not surprised by what has happened. The issues outlined in the past and current have been long standing. When you bring these issues to the forefront of the Administration and they look at you as if to say keep your mouth shut and keep it moving…all you can say to yourself is…you deserve exactly what you get. I am a graduate of Howard and as harsh as it may seem…I have no sympathy for what has happened. Until you do right by your staff and students…no good will come to you. I’m just saying.

  2. You bring up some good points; this has happened at other prestigious PWI universities and Howard tends to let issues fester until they erupt. But it’s not fair to blame the protesters or Rihanna. They just wanted to shine a light on the issues and force the administration to make some effort to solve it. The problem falls on how the DoE decided to punish Howard for something that tends to happen at big universities.

  3. All schools have these issues. However, all schools dont have the same funding, so HBCUs need to hire better and those who misuse funds should face a mandatory 10 year sentence. There also needs to be transparency. I graduated TSU and PVAMU and the financial aid staff could have been the same persons, slow and inept they are, no regard for student concerns and on the whole admin has no regard for faculty so when they get busted I be like, another hbcu angel got his wings!

  4. I applaud the students that were brave enough to face this deficiency at Howard head on. If generations of students before 20q8 would have took this huge stand decades ago the school, alumni support, and financial aid woes would ve up to par of the PWI’s mentioned. I see alumni representing HU everywhere across the world in prime and pivotal positions yet the alumni giving is low. Why? Because thry know and understand the Administration of the Howard are lackluster, and insufficient in taking steps to put the campus as a whole in a better stance. There is no way Howard produce the best of the best in the world but the campus is in worse shape, physically (housing,infrastructure,student support and programs), financially (aid, business operations, and follow through) than a startup school. It is time that the old regime leave the school and put the students and the history and future of Howard in better hands and a better light. The money at PWI’s are there because their alumni and supporters see improvements yearly. As students at those institutions they were appreciated, heard, and allowed to participate in decision making not constantly shunned or encouraged to keep family business in the family. Now those students are alumni and leveraging their resources to expand their alma mater.

    Keep up the great work young people exposing the barriers and setbacks to enable the future to be much brighter. Do not mind the naysayers. You all deserve not only the best education but the best education environment.

  5. Howard is my Alma Mater.

    I was down with the student protesters when we shut down the admin building and made Cheeks come out of hiding and the cops came with prison buses to arrest all of us and told us to shut up. After they came at us with their rifles drawn and the shit was about to get real our Mayor called those pigs off and told them to send their buses back. I’m down with the students now too so y’all STAY UP!

    I ain’t with y’alls “anonymous says” shit though. Who da fuk is anonymous? Y’all millenials ain’t shit secret anyway. Stand by yo shit. Suckas hide.

    George Winfield, African American Studies-Business Admin. 89.

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