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.