It’s a matter of justice and a matter of economics. It’s not right that more than 50 years after a string of court decisions overturned legal barriers to African Americans attending college, financial barriers to African-American attendance and graduation are increasing.
It doesn’t make economic sense, either. The U.S. economy needs college-educated teachers, scientists and engineers to stay competitive in the global economy. And in a country whose population and workforce will be majority minority by midcentury, that college-educated workforce will depend heavily on college graduates of color.
It’s not that the administration has done nothing to help low-income Americans pay for college. It has supported increasing Pell Grants, the largest federal source of student aid. But it has not even proposed increasing Pell Grants enough to maintain their former purchasing power, now at an all-time low. And it dealt away summer school Pell Grants in a 2011 budget deal with Congress.
Similarly, the administration deserves credit for instituting direct student loans, thereby cutting out unnecessary fees paid to commercial banks for risk-free federally guaranteed student loans. But it changed without notice the eligibility criteria for another federal loan program, Parent PLUS Loans, excluding millions of low-income parents with good repayment records.
Most important, as that catalog of programs — some working at cross-purposes with others — suggests, the administration has not put together a coherent, comprehensive financial-aid policy calculated to achieve the goal President Obama enunciated in his address to Congress four years ago: increasing the number of Americans graduating from college and reclaim by 2020 — now just seven years away — world leadership in the percentage of citizens with college degrees.
The Obama administration has demonstrated, through its innovative and effective strategy to help reform K-12 education, that it knows how to use its leverage (the federal government bears 10 percent of the cost of K-12 education) to start the country on the path to better education. It needs to bring to bear that experience and its even greater financial-aid leverage (the federal government supplies 71 percent of all college financial aid) in developing a strategy to help the students whom the country needs pay for the college education that the country needs them to have.
Michael Lomax is president and CEO of United Negro College Fund. He is a contributing editor for The Root.
If you have any questions about the college experience, whether you are a student or a parent, please send them to Dr. Lomax at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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