The Future of HBCUs Brightens With Fix to Federal Loan Program

When students return to college campuses later this month, more than 300,000 of them will be attending institutions that some people may consider throwbacks to days gone by. But anybody who discounts the modern relevancy of historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) hasn’t been paying attention.

Consider these numbers:

The number of students enrolled at HBCUs grew 45 percent between 1976 and 2011, from 223,000 to 324,000, according to federal statistics. And, even as the academic choices available to Black students have multiplied, the schools still produce 16 percent of the nation’s Black college graduates, and a startling 30 percent of its Ph.D. scientists and engineers.

These days, as the nation becomes more diverse, and as lawmakers call for more college graduates for the jobs of the future, it’s clear that HBCUs will be key to higher education in the 21st century. They educate the students who look like the changing face of America—non-White, non-traditional, and not-rich students.

At Harris-Stowe State University, for example, an open-enrollment HBCU in St. Louis where faculty and staff voted this year to join Missouri NEA, more than 80 percent of students are first-generation college students and 33 percent untraditional, or over the age of 24. And strikingly, more than 90 percent rely on federal aid to pay for college. For them, their HSSU degrees are their entry to the American Dream.

These are “exactly the young men and women the nation most needs to get a college education and start careers,” according to a recent report from the United Negro College Fund (UNCF). And they can find that start at a HBCU, where, research shows, low-income students are more likely to succeed.

But that doesn’t mean HBCUs don’t face challenges. Three have shut their doors in recent years, while others face the squeeze from rising costs and declining enrollments. At Howard University in Washington D.C., the alma mater of Thurgood Marshall, about 200 staff positions were cut this year and the institution’s credit rating downgraded by Moody’s Investors Services.

When HBCUs were first established, all of them before 1964, they often were the only option for Black students who sought to be teachers, or doctors, or lawyers. But this year, Black students constitute about 12 percent of the incoming class at Harvard. Black students clearly have more choices, and they’re not always opting for the historic one. In 1976, about 35 percent of Black college graduates earned their degrees at HBCUs; now it’s half that. Competition can mean a fight for survival.

But the biggest blow to HBCUs in recent years has been the U.S. Department of Education’s changes in 2011 to its federal Parent PLUS loan program, which have made it more difficult for families to pay for college. In 2012, nearly two of three Parent PLUS applicants from HBCUs specifically were denied loans, reports the UNCF. By spring 2013, the number of students attending HBCUs with PLUS loans had fallen 45 percent—or more than 17,000 students. (Howard alone lost nearly 600 students, according to the Washington Post.)

That’s why NEA and its faculty and staff members at HBCUs, including HSSU, Florida A&M University, Alabama A&M University, and elsewhere, have urged the White House and its administration to loosen up the requirements for the loan program in a way that acknowledges the realities of life for those students and their families. Half of HBCU students come from homes where the household income is less than $34,000.

But everybody deserves a fair shot at higher education, NEA believes, and your family’s background or income shouldn’t dictate your choices in life. (If you want to raise your voice on behalf of college affordability, check out NEA’s Degrees Not Debt campaign.)

Earlier this month, the Obama administration indicated it agreed. The Department of Education proposed new rules for Parent PLUS loans, which would reinstate the original credit requirements for borrowers. That proposal “provides a good balance between expanding access to higher education for students, while maintaining protections that do not expose low-income families to exorbitant levels of debt,” said NEA Senior Policy Analyst for Higher Education Mark F. Smith, who added, “In addition, as the Higher Education Act nears reauthorization, we will be promoting dramatic expansion of students’ and families’ eligibility for grant aid to help students attend—and complete—their postsecondary programs.”