HBCUs seek Obama’s help on parent loans


Former president Bill Clinton speaks during Howard University’s 145th commencement ceremony May 11 in Washington. (Mark Gail/The Washington Post)
August 16, 2013

The leaders of Morgan State, Bowie State, Howard and eight other historically black universities warned President Obama last month that new limits on federal lending to parents would produce a “devastating impact on student enrollment” in the coming school year.

The university leaders asked the president, in a letter dated July 30, to reverse a step the administration took in October 2011 to tighten underwriting standards for parent loans. Low-income parents shut out from federal financing, they said, would be unable to pay college bills, forcing many students to withdraw from school.

“We are alarmed by the harmful effects this policy change has had on access to college nationally,” they wrote. Among the signers were presidents David Wilson of Morgan State in Baltimore, Mickey L. Burnim of Bowie State in Prince George’s County and Sidney A. Ribeau of Howard in the District.

This week, Education Secretary Arne Duncan announced measures to help applicants who were initially rejected secure parent loans through appeals. He also pledged to open talks in the spring on possible revisions to lending regulations and said Obama is “committed to addressing the very serious issue of rising college costs.”

The question for advocates of historically black colleges and universities, or HBCUs, is whether those responses will suffice. There are about 100 HBCUs nationwide. They serve a high share of students in financial need and have been disproportionately affected by the federal government’s tighter lending standards.

Wilson said Morgan State expects to enroll as many as 300 fewer undergraduates in the fall than the school’s target of 6,900, a drop he attributes largely to the parent loan issues. “Even as I’m speaking to you,” he said Friday, “I’m getting e-mails from students saying, ‘Help me finance my education.’ ” Some, he said, are “crying, tearful.”

Wilson added: “I am advocating on behalf of those students so they are not blocked out of higher education.” But he called Duncan’s action “a good first step.”

Burnim said that Bowie State, with enrollment of about 5,400, has found that some of its parents are scrambling for funds. But he applauded the administration’s response. “It shows much greater sensitivity than had been shown previously,” he said.

Ribeau could not be reached Friday for comment. Howard’s enrollment fell 5 percent last fall, to about 10,000, a drop that the university attributed in part to a reduction in parent loans.

Another educator who signed the letter to Obama said he was “totally unsatisfied” by the administration’s response.

“At no point have they gone back to fix the initial problem,” said Carlton Brown, president of Clark Atlanta University. He said that enrollment at the private institution fell by 500 students last fall, to about 3,400. He said the administration has been unable to justify the lending shift. “It’s precious hard to explain to struggling parents who have been trying to figure out how to get their children into college since forever,” Brown said.

But Harold L. Martin, chancellor of North Carolina A&T University, who also signed the letter, said Duncan’s response “moves this discussion in the right direction.”

Department officials said they are concerned that many parents initially turned down for loans because of minor credit problems would be strong candidates for reconsideration but have not appealed. Reaching out to them before school starts, they said, is a top priority.

“While we need to carry out a law written to protect both parents and taxpayers against unaffordable loans, we are committed to doing everything we can to make sure students get all of the financial aid they need,” department spokesman Cameron French said.

On Capitol Hill, there were conflicting views.

Rep. Marcia L. Fudge (D-Ohio), chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, charged that the administration was letting bureaucracy stand between students and higher education.

“We can hear the voices of students who are being abruptly removed from school loud and clear,” Fudge said in a statement. “Why can’t the Department of Education?”

But Rep. Elijah E. Cummings (D-Md.), a member of the caucus, applauded the administration’s response. “I hope Secretary Duncan will move with all deliberateness to reestablish policies that support greater access to education, and consequently, the American dream,” he said.

Nick Anderson covers higher education for The Washington Post. He has been a writer and editor at The Post since 2005.
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