We’ve ripped her for her comments on HBCUs and school choice, we booed the hell out of her at Bethune-Cookman’s commencement, and HBCU Twitter has made her a go-to meme for workday distraction. US Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has been in our crosshairs literally since her first day on the job, when she met with students and executives at Howard University in her first official visit.
Her introduction to our culture has been a constant journey through minefields of our creation. And yet, for some reason and without any need to do so, she willingly steps on every single bomb we place in her path and keeps right on walking towards us; seemingly in an effort for HBCU stakeholders to meet her in the middle.
Yesterday, the Department of Education announced the suspension of two rules designed to stem predatory recruitment and enrollment of college students at high costs. Borrower defense and gainful employment essentially puts schools on the hook to pay for when students can’t get good jobs after leaving school or cannot afford to pay back loans and associated interest.
The rules were designed to target for-profit schools, which charged millions of students nationwide billions of dollars for degrees and certifications they promised would lead to good jobs, but very rarely did.
When the rules were announced last June by the Obama Administration, they immediately caused concern for HBCU presidents who feared that campuses could be sued by former students and alums who would allege that black colleges defrauded them of professional preparation and opportunity.
The rules did not account for the myriad of reasons why HBCU students drop out of school – like running out of money or a lack of secondary preparation. They did not account for cities and states which are dramatically shifting in the kinds of industries new college graduates can enter, and did not contextualize reasons for underperformance which are dramatically different between black colleges, community colleges, and for-profit institutions.
The rules simply said that schools with low graduation rates and high default rates could be subject to lawsuits and blocked from receiving federal financial aid for students – a potential death knell to nearly every HBCU in America.
And now the rules have been suspended; on Sec. DeVos’ watch. Lawmakers and education advocates are raving against the changes, but not one HBCU president or chancellor has come out to say how much they favor the suspension of these broad, threatening regulations.
In March, Paul Quinn College became the first HBCU to earn federal work college designation, which increases federal revenue coming to the school in support of students having greater access to education, and training for jobs after graduation. There’s only nine of those in the country, and HBCUs can now claim one of them.
Sec. DeVos deserves some credit from the HBCU community because institutions should not face closure or the indignity of public censure because they are mission mandated to educate the best of the best along with students forced to live and learn on social margins. We can’t tout how much HBCUs save lives because of the opportunities they provide to the poor, the racially disenfranchised and to the academically underserved without touting an Education Department which just proclaimed that mission to be worthwhile and undeserving of aggressive federal oversight.
We can’t hate on Sec. DeVos for positioning a tiny liberal arts HBCU in Dallas formerly on the brink of closure to the edge of being a national model on college affordability and postgraduate outcomes.
There is a point we must reach as Americans, and specifically as an HBCU community, where we can balance our fight for racial and social equity with the need for personal responsibility. We can say that HBCUs are underfunded and deserve more support while at the same time demanding that students borrow education loans wisely, work hard to finish degrees and prepare themselves for entry into the workforce.
We are doing ourselves and the country a disservice by making rules to suggest that institutions are the only entities that can be mediocre or opportunistic in higher education, but not students who fail to pick majors with sound hiring potential, or who don’t get good internships, or who live in areas with fading industry. There is a balance for a government which, like all of us, is learning how to budget and spend when there is less to go around.
But the larger point is how uneven we’ve been in considering Sec. DeVos as a legitimate ally in the HBCU effort to ‘get there.’ She’s been to two of our campuses and has been publicly embarrassed at both of them. And yet, her policymaking and oversight continue to show a legitimate interest in helping HBCUs to survive.
Working with Sec. DeVos is not a betrayal of our political values or our cultural pride, even though those two things have zero to do with who runs the Dept. of Education and the money which flows to HBCUs under their authorization. Working with her and her staff means that we have a shared mutual interest in keeping black colleges open, and in a position to grow as options for students of all races and from all levels of financial capacity to afford higher education.
Betrayal is Bethune-Cookman’s president threatening graduates on commencement day because they are exercising the constitutional right to boo someone who is mature enough, professional enough, and rich enough to know how the game is supposed to go.
The political bottom line for HBCUs has always been serving the interests of sustainability, and not ideology. But in Sec. DeVos, what if there is something else? What if, despite the great and actual differences in politics, background and racial consideration, we all just happen to be united on how important HBCUs are to the country, and what it will take to make them better?