The PLUS Loan meltdown of 2012-14 will go down as one of the great targeted economic assaults on black Americans and black colleges in American history. In the last two years, HBCUs have lost well over $300 million dollars in lost grants from federal agencies and lost tuition revenues due to eligibility changes in the federal lending program.
But the crisis may be just the man-made disaster HBCUs need to enter a new era of awareness, political clout and advocacy. For the first time in two terms, President Barack Obama has been forced to listen to voices from amongst the HBCU perspective independent of "nod and show concern" posturing for a presidential campaign.
He, along with Education Secretary Arne Duncan, has been pressured by HBCU leaders and black college advocacy groups to address the nationwide casualties littered as a result of the Obama administration's yielding to the legislative right -- thousands of black students denied a college education.
He has responded thanks to the aggressive posture taken by the Congressional Black Caucus, whose members serve at the pleasure of districts stationed around or within HBCU communities, and voters with deep and passionate HBCU ties. Their public and private advocacy has been at a level unseen in the last 15 years on the issue of students being denied federal loans based on poor credit history.
Mainstream media outlets have begun to cover the issue in depth, with HBCU presidents taking center stage as spokespersons on the ravaging effects of dramatically lowered enrollment. Even black media veterans Roland Martin and Tom Joyner, who typically have steered clear of consistent coverage on legislative and policy matters impacting HBCUs, have consistently weighed in with precious air time dedicated to the topic.
So what are HBCUs to do with this coverage? The natural inclination is to ride the PLUS Loan wave until it comes to shore with a reversal of policy, or an outright "screw y'all" from the Department of Education. But HBCUs should take the moment in the national spotlight to advocate for pointed issues relative to how the nation arrived at such a critical juncture.
The government saved the housing market, saved the automotive and banking industries, and now has a chance to save the future of the American workforce. A sizable percentage of that workforce will be living and working in black communities, and addressing problems of accessibility for HBCU education directly benefits those communities which need it most.
Why are so many black students in need of the PLUS Loan to go to college? Why are black middle class families well behind the eight ball in affording college? Why are college costs so high? And if the government is so concerned with black families racking up debt in the name of higher education, where are the federal standards to make loan repayment more negotiable for students entering an uneven job market?
Why are HBCUs continually on the "go home, Roger" end of the funding scale in grants and awards from federal agencies? Why is it states across the South are refusing to equitably fund Black colleges on par with predominantly white institutions without review or consideration of review from the Department of Justice? Why are programs like the Five Fifths Agenda at Southern University in Louisiana, a program designed to guide and empower black males at the secondary educational level, still off the grid of massive federal support? Why are North Carolina Republicans unchallenged in their efforts to marginalize the voting power of HBCU students?
Credit is due to Thurgood Marshall President and CEO Johnny Taylor for sounding the alarm first and loudest within the HBCU community on the PLUS Loan issue, and to leadership at the United Negro College Fund and the National Association for Equal Opportunity in Higher Education for their media outreach, lobbying and regular alerts to HBCU presidents to spur engagement.
HBCUs aren't typically in the business of crisis profiteering, but given the scope and historic implications of this issue, black college presidents and their campuses would be well served by trying to stay in the spotlight on the issue, and using the 15 seconds of enhanced fame to bring other matters of importance for public review and action.