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  1. Opinion

Maxwell: HBCU leaders take umbrage at Obama's cuts

Published Jul. 19, 2013

The Thrill is Gone, the title of a B.B. King hit song, aptly describes the relationship between Barack Obama and African-American leaders who believed that the election of the nation's first black president would give them more access to the White House and real political clout for the first time.

Well into Obama's second term, however, many who worked tirelessly and donated money to get the then-Illinois senator elected are quietly voicing their disappointment. A rare few are publicly acknowledging the growing perception that Obama lacks genuine interest in their issues.

The presidents and advocates of historically black college and universities, known as HBCUs, are said to be the group that is most disappointed with Obama. Among their strongest complaints are cuts in federal grant funding to the 105 HBCUs and changes in the Parent PLUS Loan Program.

John Wilson, former executive director of the White House Initiative on HBCUs, said this year that federal funding for HBCUs under Obama had increased. But Department of Education documents show that total federal grants decreased from more than $742 million in 2010 to $680 million in 2012. Records also indicate that federal grants and research awards to HBCUs for development of science, technology, engineering and mathematics fell from $661 million in 2010 to $573 million in 2011.

HBCU presidents say they find out about cuts after the fact, when it is too late for them to compensate for the losses.

Obama's handling of the Parent PLUS Loan program for college attendance has alienated HBCU presidents and other leaders, including members of the Congressional Black Caucus. Reps. Elijah Cummings of Maryland, Corrine Brown of Florida and James Clyburn of South Carolina have been the most outspoken in opposing the stricter credit history eligibility standards for parents.

The requirement that borrowers cannot have an adverse credit history, for example, has sharply cut the number of parents who qualify for the loan. As a result, student enrollment at all HBCUs has dropped. The Obama administration has said repeatedly that the new rule is intended to prevent those with poor credit histories from going deeper into debt.

Even this practical explanation has not eased the conflict between the administration and HBCU advocates. At a recent press conference, Rep. Cummings, a graduate of Howard University, said: "We believe the criteria ought to be more lenient. If you have 100,000 students and families that can't get Parent PLUS loans, that's a problem for us." He told Obama the same thing during a face-to-face meeting.

The National Association for Equal Opportunity in Higher Education, or NAFEO, reports that 28,000 students attending HBCUs were denied Parent PLUS loans last fall as a result of the tighter rules. William Harvey, chairman of Obama's HBCU Board of Advisors and president of Hampton University since 1978, said the credit history change resulted in a loss of $150 million to HBCUs after students were refused loans.

Harvey told attendees at the annual NAFEO conference in April that HBCUs are in "the worst situation I've seen in 35 years." His campus lost more than $6 million as a result of Parent PLUS rejections. Howard University lost more than $7 million. Others were hit equally hard. Spelman College in Atlanta, always high in U.S. News & World Report rankings, lost more than $2 million.

Johnny Taylor Jr., president and CEO of the Thurgood Marshall College Fund, an HBCU support organization, threatened to sue the Obama administration for what has been referred to by some as a "war on HBCUs."

For many advocates, the final insult is that instead of choosing a permanent executive director of the White House Initiative on HBCUs to replace John Wilson, who left to become president of Morehouse College, Obama appointed an acting director.

A group of former HBCU presidents and chancellors recently wrote to Obama upbraiding him for his "roller coaster" approach to funding for HBCUs. "Our concern," they wrote, "is that you could leave office without having effected the necessary change in how the state and federal governments view, promote, support and fund HBCUs. That would be, in our opinion, a tragedy of untold proportion."

Critics of HBCUs argue that the presidents of these institutions have unrealistic expectations of Obama. Perhaps they are right. Still, the college presidents feel betrayed, believing that their efforts that helped Obama get elected have been for naught.

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