When I was in college at the University of Virginia, every year they had an event called Spring Fling. Spring Fling (as opposed to the much colder, gloomier Fall Fling) was the visitation weekend for all African-American students who’d been accepted to UVA, and it was a huge party. There were big concerts and fashion shows, and the black population at UVA tripled over the course of the weekend.
Everybody was sold. Of course, once you locked in that deposit and came to Charlottesville, you found out quickly that Spring Fling UVA was a pipe dream. We were sold Hillman College when, really, we were going to Winchester. Were we misled? Did we have a right to sue for false advertising? According to new legislation being pushed by the Obama administration, we were and we did—even though this policy could spell the end of HBCUs as we know them.
The push to get everyone to go to some type of postsecondary education really got out of hand in the early ’80s, which led to an explosion of for-profit colleges, short-term trade schools and now online education programs. If you happened to be up at 2 a.m. watching Blind Date in the late 1990s, there’s a good chance you saw commercials for ITT Technical Institute promising you that the key to a hot wife, respect from your kids and a promotion at work was its six-week accelerated course in Microsoft Excel!
Some of these for-profit colleges did help men and women who didn’t have the time, money or inclination to attend a four-year college get additional skills to compete in the job market. Unfortunately, all too many trapped those in the economic margins into a cycle of debt, pointless classes and promises of jobs that were never coming.
The Obama administration has been cracking down on for-profit colleges, effectively shutting down some of them (whether they had committed any wrongdoing or not) and leading others to jump out of the business before the whip cracks. The latest foray into the war on for-profit schools is a change to the “borrower defense to repayment.” The legislation has been around since the 1990s and allows students to sue for loan forgiveness if their college broke the law in order to defraud them. The revised rule would give students the power to sue a college for back tuition and fees if they felt “substantially misrepresented” by the institution.
In theory this sounds nice, right? If you aren’t happy with your car, you can sue the dealership. You aren’t happy with your house? You can sue the developer. If you aren’t happy with your dry cleaner, you can get your money back. The problem is that education isn’t like any other product you can just buy, wear or exchange every three years for a new model.
Colleges promise all sorts of lifestyle changes that are dependent on so many factors that to trace your lack of success back to your school in particular is a tricky process at best. It’s one thing if you went to Trump University and you were promised mentoring by a Fortune 500 CEO who would show you how to earn back your $85,000 tuition in just 18 months (by signing up for an additional $20,000 in classes). That’s fraud.
But what about a regular college that says, “Going to [fill in the blank] private college will change your life”? Did it fail if you didn’t become all you could be between trips to the cafeteria and the quad? Should you be able to blame the career-services office if it can’t get you any decent paid internships? This is why dozens of HBCUs have rallied against this legislation. The stipulations for being able to sue your college for "failing to meet" expectations are just too broad and too vague and open the door to all sorts of punitive shenanigans that many small HBCUs can’t afford to battle.
Surveys show that African-American students who graduate from HBCUs often feel more nurtured and supported than black students who attend predominantly white institutions. However, socioeconomically, there is more overlap between most HBCU student populations and for-profit and community college student populations than large PWIs or state institutions: precisely the kinds of students this legislation purports to help.
But can most HBCUs withstand a dozen lawsuits because a couple of students’ financial aid packages were late? Is it justifiable to sue North Carolina Central because it had problems with its dorms years ago?
This is not to suggest that black folks are more litigious than anyone else; nor that some HBCUs don’t have legitimate issues about which students can complain. However, the broad, open-ended language of the legislation paves the way for hundreds of petty lawsuits that very few institutions deserve or could survive.
I enjoyed my four years at the University of Virginia even though I learned early on that the Fugees would not be playing for free in University Hall every weekend. Yes, I got the black upsell, but overall, I was promised a degree and I got one.
When a college fails to follow through on that basic commitment, better call Saul; you deserve to sue. But once you open the doors to other forms of lawsuits, those very institutions dedicated to serving the most vulnerable students might suffer. Given the Obama administration’s horrible record in support of HBCUs, one would hope that with this piece of legislation, it would actually listen for once.
Jason Johnson, political editor at The Root, is a professor of political science at Morgan State’s School of Global Journalism and Communication and is a frequent guest on MSNBC, CNN, Al-Jazeera International, Fox Business News and SiriusXM Satellite Radio. Follow him on Twitter.