When it comes to dashing the hopes of thousands of college-bound African Americans, you’d hardly think of President Obama as a culprit. Maybe the right-wing-dominated Supreme Court. But not Obama, the black Harvard law grad who likes to cite higher education as a path into the middle class and who pledges to make student loans more accessible to black scholars.
And yet, in what United Negro College Fund President Michael Lomax calls “a nasty surprise,” the Obama administration has begun denying student loans to disproportionately large numbers of black parents because of blemished credit histories.
Talk about audacity. Obama blames malfeasance by big banks for plunging the nation into a recession, then bails them out — and proceeds to punish black people for not making it through the economic maelstrom unscathed.
An angry-sounding Obama actually called Tuesday’s Supreme Court ruling against a key part of the Voting Rights Act a “setback” for blacks. You want to know what a real setback is, Mr. President? It’s using some bureaucratic fiat to prevent black students from going to college.
Obama declared that he will press for restoration of the portion of the Voting Rights Act the justices ruled on. But let’s face it: He’s a lame duck. Why not leave as part of his legacy tens of thousands of newly minted black college graduates to carry on what is sure to be a decades-long struggle?
“We’re getting calls and e-mails from parents, at least two and three a day, saying the denial of their student loans is a disaster,” said Johnny Taylor, president of the Washington-based Thurgood Marshall College Fund. “You have black students from low-income households about to enter college or already there and pressing towards graduation, persisting just as Obama urged them to do, only to have his administration pull the rug out from under them.”
In the past year, for historically black colleges and universities (HCBU), the Obama administration’s policies have led to a 36 percent drop in the volume of parent loans. That translated into an annual cut of more than $150 million. The reason, according to Education Secretary Arne Duncan, is to prevent parents from taking on too much debt — which is as patronizing as it is hypocritical. In April, Obama announced that he was pushing to make more home loans available to people with weak credit.
He says it’s part of an effort to improve the economy, as if having an educated workforce is not.
Moreover, according to the Congressional Budget Office, the federal government stands to rake in $51 billion in profits from student loans this year. That means a whole lot of parents are paying off those loans.
Nevertheless, from Howard University in the District to Morehouse and Spelman colleges in Atlanta, enrollment at HBCUs is declining as the realities of Obama’s revamped loan policies make a mockery of his high-flung rhetoric.
“It is particularly ironic that at a time when this administration has set a goal to increase the nation’s college graduation rate to 60 percent by 2020, this policy shift occurs that will make reaching the goal impossible,” said Cheryl Smith, senior vice president for public policy and government at the United Negro College Fund. “The tougher credit criteria are having a disparate impact on underrepresented minority students, the very ones that stand to benefit the most from a college education.”
Obama himself has yet to address these concerns. He’s leaving that up to Duncan, who told radio-show host Roland Martin that parents who have been denied could be reconsidered by calling a toll-free number and that approval was possible “sometimes within six minutes.”
Countered Smith: “This reconsideration process has been largely ineffective, and if the Education Department continues on this path, we will have another debacle this coming academic year.”
Imagine any other president, say George W. Bush, trying to bamboozle black people the way the Obama administration has. Students from every HBCU in the country would be marching on the White House.
Obama, on the other hand, can go to Morehouse — which is being racked by staff furloughs because of his restrictive loan program — and tell graduates, as he did at a recent commencement, “Nobody is going to give you anything you didn’t earn.”
And he gets a standing ovation.
Bush would have been hit with a shoe.
For the most part, Obama’s most loyal supporters blame right-wing obstructionists in Congress for thwarting progressive ideas. But this time, nobody made Obama turn the screws on black folks.
Instead of heeding calls for relief, however, Obama has taken to doing TV spots promoting the importance of a college education. In one, Obama looks out at the camera with a photograph of himself as a student at Harvard in the background.
“If I hadn’t gone there, I would’t be here,” he says.
Which must raise a question in the minds of those disappointed black college kids: So what?
To read previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/milloy.