“These are difficult times for our institutions, our students and their families – even more difficult than when we first began this journey together in 2009.” — Hampton University President William Harvey, Chair, President Obama’s Board of Advisors on HBCUs, Feb. 4. 2015
President Obama was critical of Historically Black Colleges and Universities during a meeting with members of the Congressional Black Caucus this week according to several in attendance. The February 10 meeting was the first group gathering with the Black Caucus and the President since June 2013.
Several who attended the meeting indicated that President Obama felt that the focus of HBCU’s needs to be on the schools changing their ways of doing business rather on changes in federal policy. Those who attended said he was specifically critical of graduation rates and loan policies. The President also spoke to CBC members on his free community college plan which some HBCU advocates believe will hurt HBCUs.
The Chair of President Obama’s Board of Advisors on HBCUs, Hampton President Dr. William Harvey, was critical of the lack of input the Board had on the community college proposal during a speech in Washington to Administration officials on February 4. He also said he was “disappointed and saddened” by the lack of agency funding for Historically Black colleges and Universities.
“We are not consulted when it comes to policy changes and decisions impacting – in a major way – the institutions on whose behalf we are to advocate. It happened with Pell. It happened with Parent Plus. And, now it is happening with the new community college initiative,” President Obama’s HBCU Initiative Chairman said on Feb. 4.
HBCUs have had a tough time during the Obama Administration. In 2011, a change by the Department of Education to Parent PLUS loan standards would eventually cost HBCUs over $150 million. In August 2012, Morris Brown College filed for Chapter 11. In 2013, St. Paul College closed after 125 years. This week it was learned that South Carolina State University may close for at least a year. Title III spending on HBCUs has steadily gone down since 2009.
“Pell grants to students at HBCUs are down. Direct loans to our students are down. Graduate subsidies have been eliminated. In addition to student support, overall support to Black colleges is down,” Dr. Harvey, who has been President of Hampton since 1978, said on Feb. 4.
Rep. Jim Clyburn (D-SC), an alum of South Carolina State University, would not speak on the school’s situation. When asked to comment on what President Obama said on HBCUs at the February 10, White House meeting with the CBC, Clyburn said, “it’s for-profit schools where the graduation rate problem is — not HBCUs, the Parent PLUS loan stuff has to do with new rules on credit worthiness and I just think that in the discussion he mangled it.”
Secretary of Education Arne Duncan apologized in 2013 for the “real impact” the Parent PLUS change had on HBCUs. A modification of the Parent PLUS criteria was announced by the Department of Education in October 2014 and is set to take effect in July 2015.
Congressional Black Caucus Chairman G.K. Butterfield (D-NC), a graduate of North Carolina Central and North Carolina Central Law School, declined to comment on what the President said on HBCUs on February 10 during the CBC’s meeting with the President.
Other members commented.
“He said there were some HBCUs that were not good at graduating students and if they did not improve they’d have to go by the wayside,” said Rep. Hank Johnson (D-GA).
“In other words he didn’t show much empathy for struggling HBCUs. It was like show me the numbers and if the numbers aren’t where they need to be, that’s it. It was a somewhat callous view of the unique niche HBCUs fill,” Rep. Johnson, a graduate of Clark Atlanta University, said. Rep. Johnson said there needs to be a deeper discussion with the President on HBCU issues.
“We worked on this for two years and it’s a lack of understanding with this Administration and — in particular — this Secretary,” said Rep. Corrine Brown (D-FL) from Florida referring to Education Secretary Duncan. Rep. Brown is a graduate of Florida A&M.
“I worked at a community college for 16 years. I worked at a Black college for four years. I worked at the University of Florida for four years. We’re talking about community colleges for everybody — we should be talking about programs and the money following the kids. They should have the option of going to wherever they want to go for those two years,” Rep. Brown added.
Former Black Caucus Chair Marcia Fudge (D-OH) also commented on the President’s comments on HBCUs. She said he did have some positive things to say about some schools but that, “It was clear to me that some of the information he has is probably from a narrative that he’s getting from someone else that’s not very accurate.”
“He and the Secretary have said in the past that there are HBCUs failing our children — and that might well be true — but if that’s the case then they need to shore up those HBCUs or they need to close them and not use them against us as we fight for resources for other schools,” Rep. Fudge added. She is a member of the House Education and Workforce Committee.
“I would also suggest that there are as many private and for-profit schools who fail our children in a much larger way and nobody talks about them. Why single out HBCUs?,” she added.
A look at the worst graduation rates in the U.S. showed several HBCUs but also listed were Utah Valley University (15% graduation rate), University of Maryland-University College (10%) and Kent State University (23%).
Rep. Fudge was critical of the Department of Education, saying, “I think they have created an environment where if you don’t agree with what they think you are the enemy as opposed to trying to find a way that we can all come together and educate children. Much of this doesn’t come from the White House but from the Department of Education and the Secretary in particular,”
“What we ought to be talking about is: If there are weaknesses at certain HBCUs what do we do to strengthen those institutions?” said Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-MS) who graduated from Jackson State University and Tougaloo. Both Rep. Thompson and Rep. Fudge brought up the funding disparities between HBCUs and other institutions as a big problem.
The CBC’s First Vice Chair, Rep. Yvette Clarke (D-NY) said, “I was concerned about what the President said because it feeds into a narrative about the value of these institutions and whether they are equip to educate our students and what the cost is for doing so,” Rep. Clarke added.
“Many of these institutions have not had a maintenance of effort on the part of states or the federal government and over time that wears on their ability to maintain standards or even advance beyond a certain level. It was very clear that he doesn’t have the same level of appreciation for what these institutions have done and could do in the future given the right support systems,” Rep. Clarke concluded.
Several members at Monday’s meeting remarked that President Obama appeared very tired during the 90 minute meeting. The following morning, Feb. 11, would be the day President Obama would request additional military options against ISIS from Congress.
“You could look at the President and tell that at any moment he was going to fall on his face. He was falling asleep. He probably didn’t know what he said. I didn’t take it as an offense because I don’t think he really knew what he was saying — placing HBCUs all in one basket. But he was critical of HBCUs,” a senior member who was at the meeting said.
Rep. Cedric Richmond (D-LA), a graduate of Morehouse, said, “I think many people only want to look at output of the universities. Nobody looks at the input at what they’re starting with. They’re taking kids who are largely Pell Grant recipients, largely first generation, largely kids who come in needing remedial courses, kids who come from pubic school systems that have failed them.”
“I don’t think it’s fair to compare apples to oranges. I have a different take on it especially as a public school graduate who went off to Morehouse and succeeded. I think HBCUS are a nurturing environment and their goal is to take all those diamonds in the rough and polish them. It’s just a different role, scope and mission,” added Rep. Richmond.
Chicago Reps. Danny Davis (D-IL) and Bobby Rush (D-IL) said he had no problem with what the President said on HBCUs at Monday’s meeting.
“There are individuals who think that the community college initiative is going to damaging to HBCUs. That has not necessarily been born out yet. I graduated from an HBCU,” Rep. Davis said. “He [the President] was talking about schools whose graduation rates were not all that good. I got the impression he was saying he needed to shape up their game,” Rep. Davis added. Rep. Davis is a graduate of Chicago State University.
Rep. Bobby Scott (D-VA), the ranking member of the House Education and Workforce Committee who led the discussion on education policy with President Obama during the White House meeting, pointed out a recent $25 million federal cyber security grant for Norfolk State University when asked about the meeting. The grant was announced by Vice President Biden on January 15 at NSU.