Tennessee Promise Proves Worthy Test Case on How to Dismantle HBCUs

Last year, President Barack Obama created hope for millions of families and college students nationwide when he announced a proposal to make the first two years of college free of charge. Lauded by researchers outside of the HBCU community, the plan was sold as a way to generate tuition revenues for black colleges which have experienced dramatic declines in enrollment, and federal and state appropriations in the last five years.

The plan, modeled after Tennessee’s college access program, drew immediate concerns from several in the four-year higher education sector, and particularly from HBCUs. From Diverse Issues in Higher Education:

The president of Dillard University, Dr. Walter M. Kimbrough, said that he was skeptical of the basic premise behind America’s College Promise. “I’m not hearing, ‘This is a good idea, and this is why.’ I’m just hearing, ‘This is a good idea.’ Well, prove it. I don’t see the proof,” he said.

And now, it seems that the quiet fears of reduced enrollment, siphoned state and federal resources, and combative relations between two and four-year public institutions, were all well-founded. The Tennessean this week reports on enrollment data from the first year of the Tennessee Promise program:

When Tennessee Promise students enrolled last fall, there was a 24.7 percent increase in full-time freshmen at community colleges and a 20 percent jump at technical colleges. But Board of Regents universities saw an 8.4 percent drop in the same category, which was a bit sharper than expected.

If Tennessee was the litmus for a federal program on college access, then it also could be a national punchline for its unintended consequences. Obama’s efforts to prevent students from essentially stealing Pell Grant and federal student loan money by driving them to mid-level and vocational careers may seem like a good idea for individual students, and for saving tax payer money.

And while we are a year or two away from seeing what the enrollment data will really looks like for four-year schools in Tennessee, the first year doesn’t look so promising for schools like Tennessee State, with financial profiles which can change by falling just a few hundred students short of an enrollment goal from year to year.

For families, what happens to lifetime earning potential, social mobility, and the notion that college graduates birth and eventually rear college graduates? That connection, while possible, doesn’t easily translate in the community college-to-four-year transfer culture. And while some states like California are looking to proliferate the impact of community colleges to meet industrial goals, states like North Carolina view it as bad business practice.

HBCUs have fought hard and long to establish niche programs while maintaining mission and affordability, and should not have to survive historic racial and social stigmas only to be undone by governments creating unfair market advantages for community colleges. And even though Obama’s plan now includes conditional provisions for students who choose to enroll at HBCUs, and his budget includes the return of some of the funding snatched over the course of his eight years in office, they don’t appear to be on a fast track for congressional approval.

And that makes the community college plans currently under review by several states, and on deck for Democratic presidential candidates, a very real point of concern for black colleges moving forward.

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