That could be the official theme of President Barack Obama’s rapport with the African-American community in general, but even more so regarding his administration’s eight-year relationship with HBCUs, which we examine in this edition of The Root’s monthly series His Lasting Legacy. The expectations that came with the election of America’s first black president—combined with the practical, if not sobering, realities of governance, as well as some clear missteps—give Obama a decidedly mixed grade when it comes to many influential members of the HBCU community.
“Look, I named my son Barack, and he was born when he was elected, so I’m obviously a supporter of the president,” Walter Kimbrough laughed.
Kimbrough, president of Dillard University in New Orleans, previously served as president of Philander Smith College in Little Rock, Ark. Kimbrough regularly advocates for HBCUs as the most crucial incubators of black college graduates, and sees HBCUs as centers of innovation.
“But I didn’t have great expectations,” Kimbrough continued. “I wasn’t going to set myself up like that. People wanted an activist like Martin Luther King Jr., and I was thinking that he was still going to have to work with white folks like Mitch McConnell who wanted to get rid of him from day one.”
Johnny C. Taylor Jr., CEO and president of the Thurgood Marshall College Fund, and one of Obama’s harshest critics, echoed Kimbrough’s outlook on his initial expectations for the Obama administration and HBCUs.
“I was cautiously optimistic,” said Taylor. “I assumed that we wouldn’t be harmed. At a minimum, I thought things would remain status quo.”
That didn’t happen.
The Thurgood Marshall College Fund, which supports HBCU students through scholarships, while also lobbying Congress on behalf of HBCU member schools, including influencing budgetary decisions, was concerned from the very moment Obama took office. HBCUs, with their dependence on state and federal funding, have always paid close attention to how administrations, Democratic and Republican, approached them when it came to funding decisions. But if HBCUs were to follow Vice President Joe Biden’s famous adage, “Show me your budget and I’ll tell you what you value,” then the Obama administration got off to a rocky start in convincing Taylor that HBCUs were a valued part of its higher education plan.
The first Obama budget in 2009, during the height of the recession, removed a two-year Bush-administration program that annually funded $85 million directly to HBCU schools. At the time, the administration pointed to its increase of Title III direct funding to HBCUs from $238 million to $250 million, while also increasing Pell Grant limits for students as mitigating factors. But those increases aside, it still meant that HBCUs were to lose nearly $73 million in funds. Even Sen. Richard Burr, a Republican from North Carolina, criticized the decision, pointing to $9 million in whaling-history-museum funding that had been maintained in the Obama budget.
“Dr. Julianne Malveaux wrote an amazing editorial piece going into [President Obama] for cutting us,” remembered Taylor. “The White House’s response wasn’t, ‘Oops, I’m sorry. I can’t believe this incredible oversight.’ Their position was, ‘We didn’t cut you; that program was temporary. It just wasn’t renewed.’ It was at that moment when my assumption that things couldn’t get worse was now challenged.”
Malveaux, an MIT-trained economist and the former president of Bennett College in Greensboro, N.C., writes extensively about Obama in her new book, Are We Better Off? Race, Obama and Public Policy. Unlike Kimbrough and Taylor, Malveaux had higher expectations for Obama.
“I had very high expectations that President Obama would be very visible and vocal about higher education, which he was, but, given his base, would be very responsive to the African-American community, and the HBCU community, and that just wasn’t the case,” she said. “As soon as he came in, there were talks about cuts, and that set the tone. You never thought that when a conservative white man put more money in for HBCUs that a progressive black man would take it out.”
“I think we should remember that the president proposes the budget, but the Congress approves that budget. But the president does set the tone,” said Ivory Toldson, executive director of the White House Initiative on Historically Black Colleges and Universities. Toldson is the administration’s liaison with HBCUs.
“If you look at the last budget, the one that’s on the table right now,” Toldson continued, “there’s an unprecedented increase to HBCUs. Whether direct support through Title III; the America’s College Promise has close to $60 billion that would go to HBCUs in it; and summer Pell Grants would be restored. So there’s a lot that President Obama puts in the budget, and then we have to work with Congress to make sure it stays in.”
That initial uproar from HBCUs caused the Obama administration to add the funding back to its budget, but the damage was done. There was a mistrust between the administration and HBCUs that remains to this day, yet it wasn’t all doom and gloom.
“Adding money to the Title III program was huge, and people were hyped about that,” Kimbrough recalled. “For small schools like Philander and Dillard, we were getting an extra half-a-million dollars a year. So on the one hand, President Obama came in and we got this new money, but right after that, they changed the ruling on the Parent PLUS loan that hurt everybody. So after HBCUs received that money, people started expecting positive things, and then it all went left.”
Nothing illustrates how left it went for the Obama administration and its relationship with HBCUs than the changes the Department of Education made to the Parent PLUS loan program in October 2011. Designed to allow parents to take out loans on behalf of their children, the program’s credit requirements were stiffened by the federal government as it began consolidating loan programs that had previously been administered by private companies. Now facing higher credit standards, thousands of black parents who’d previously qualified for Parent PLUS loans found themselves rejected.
These changes had an impact not only at HBCUs but also throughout higher education, as noted in a report by New America Foundation policy analyst Rachel Fishman. According to Fishman, the department approved more than 200,000 fewer loans in 2013 than in 2011 before the changes. By 2014, the number had risen to over 400,000 rejections.
African-American students at HBCUs, whose parents often suffered from poor creditworthiness, suddenly found themselves scrambling to find funding. What made it worse for HBCUs is that most administrations didn’t realize the impact of the changes until their students began getting rejected for loans during the summer of 2012, since the Obama administration had done a poor job of notifying them about the new changes.
“I tried to not send a lot of students home,” Malveaux recalled, saying that she kept as many Bennett students enrolled as possible, even though their financial aid hadn’t come through. “I mean, I had students who had turned in their paperwork in May and thought they qualified for financial aid. They’d moved into the dormitory. They’ve enrolled in their classes. You have begun to attend your classes. Now, because of the changes in the loan program, they say that you have to go home. I tried my best to not do that.”
Again, not having understood the effect that the new policy would have on HBCUs, the Obama administration scrambled to create a reconsideration process, through which, if students had been initially rejected, they could resubmit their application. According to Toldson, 98 percent of students were eventually approved for a loan. Eventually, then-Department of Education Secretary Arne Duncan apologized at an HBCU conference for the poor communication about the new requirements.
But one of the most contentious battles between the Obama administration and HBCUs has been the president’s emphasis on graduation rates. It’s not that HBCU advocates are against higher graduation rates, but they also want the administration to recognize that not all schools have the same mission as HBCUs; nor do they have the same type of student profile.
HBCUs, both public and private, have traditionally made it their mission to educate lower-income African-American students, since 70 percent of HBCU students are eligible for Pell Grants, whose award is based on financial need. And many HBCU students arrive on HBCU campuses needing remedial education after having been undereducated in K-12 schools throughout the South. So holding HBCUs to the same six-year graduation standard that a Yale or a University of Chicago is held to isn’t fair, in the eyes of HBCU administrators.
“When you’re comparing graduation rates at HBCUs and other schools, you’re comparing apples and oranges,” said Malveaux. “HBCU students aren’t taking eight years to finish their degree because they’re stupid, but because they started school, and then they stopped because of money. And if we had more financial aid available, they wouldn’t have to do that. So it’s unfair to look at a student who took eight semesters, but they weren’t connected semesters, and dub them a failure. The metric is a wrong metric because you can’t compare an HBCU student with a student at Harvard. Compare HBCUs to schools that have the same percentage of Pell-eligible students.”
What’s particularly galling for many in the HBCU ranks is that while the Obama administration is hitting HBCUs hard for their low graduation rates, they’re also advocating subsidizing free community college tuition, even though black students at community colleges actually fare worse in terms of graduation rates for black students than those at HBCUs.
“You can’t say graduation rates are important and then want to give free education to community college, where graduation rates for black students are worse,” said Kimbrough. “I can show you research that shows that if a black student needs remediation, and they start at a four-year school, they have a four times better chance of graduating with a four-year degree than if they started at a community college. That’s long-standing research. But they [the Obama administration] just don’t see it that way because, as Andy Young said during the 2008 campaign, and it was a valid criticism … the black people they have in the Obama administration are Ivy League-educated from the Northeast, and they don’t have anyone from the South. They just don’t understand HBCUs.”
And this is one of the reasons that have been posited about why Obama seems to have a disconnect with HBCUs. Growing up in Hawaii, and living most of his adult life in Chicago, the president, Kimbrough noted, didn’t have any natural connections with HBCUs; nor did he have any understanding of how blacks in the South, in comparison with those in the North, have different realities. Attendance at HBCUs in the South is interconnected with other social aspects of black Southern life, like fraternity and sorority membership and church affiliation. Generations of black HBCU alums take pride in being a “Morehouse man” or a “Spelman woman,” and since Obama does not have a direct connection to that experience, Kimbrough believes, HBCUs are a “learned” experience for him.
And as a result, the president has often used the backdrop of HBCUs to deliver “hard messages” to the black community, like his much criticized 2013 commencement speech at Morehouse College, where he gave a Booker T. Washington-style speech on personal responsibility in the black community.
“He’s going to Morehouse College, where the cream of the crop of black men are getting degrees, and talking about ‘No excuses’ and ‘Pull up your pants,’ and I’m like, Obama needs someone in a fraternity or sorority, or someone from the South, to take him to the side and say, ‘Bruh, you can’t say that,’” Kimbrough said, half jokingly. “The black community can take criticism, but this isn’t the time or the place.”
Malveaux, who calls President Obama the “scold-in-chief,” asks, “How do you tell the students at Morehouse College, the citadel of black male education, the place where Dr. King went, to ‘Pull your pants up’?”
Marc Lamont Hill, a distinguished professor of African-American studies at Morehouse College, went even further in an email:
Too often, the president uses HBCUs as a space to critique black communities in ways that he never does to other groups, especially traditional constituencies. This uneven punishment not only plays out rhetorically, but also in the policy realm. While the president is rightly supporting community colleges, he is stripping away precious resources from HBCUs, despite the fact that they have higher graduation rates. Too often, it feels like a cynical political tactic where, under the guise of “tough love,” President Obama signals to the broader public that he is willing to put blacks “in their place.”
And Malveaux and Taylor also aren’t buying the idea that Obama needs more connections with HBCUs to advocate for HBCUs, both of them pointing to a current issue as proof.
“President Obama, as he should, is advocating for the transgender community,” Taylor said. “Who in his administration is transgender?”
“He doesn’t have a natural background in transgender issues, now, does he?” Malveaux asked. “I wish he just had a fraction of the emotion he had [about taking money away from states who discriminate against transgender people] for HBCUs. He’s never threatened to take away money from anyone who threatened HBCUs.”
Toldson defended the administration, pointing out that the Obama administration has reached record levels in terms of funding for HBCUs, and that the administration is doing all it can to help HBCUs prosper in the 21st century.
“There are a lot of people in career positions in the administration who have a burning heart for HBCUs,” he said. “But we need to speak honestly about the institutions that are having low graduation rates for HBCUs. Not just looking at the collective and saying ‘They’re bad,’ but there are some who are low at the bottom, and see how we can come up with a solution.”
But despite these criticisms, Kimbrough said he believes that in today’s current higher educational environment, where black students have protested campus racism on over 100 predominantly white colleges and universities, HBCUs play an even more crucial role in educating black students, regardless of who is in the White House.
“We have a great opportunity now because there are parents who are saying, ‘Aw, hell naw, I can’t send my child to a place where all this blatant racism is going on,’” said Kimbrough. “It’s an opportunity for us to talk about what we do well, and how we can create a safe learning environment where your child is valued. It’s a tough environment for all of higher ed, but those of us who take advantage of it will do fine.”
Also in the His Lasting Legacy series on The Root:
Lawrence Ross is the author of the Los Angeles Times best-seller The Divine Nine: The History of African American Fraternities and Sororities. His newest book, Blackballed: The Black and White Politics of Race on America’s Campuses, is a blunt and frank look at the historical and contemporary issue of campus racism on predominantly white college campuses. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram.