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Will the President’s New College Funding Plan Hurt HBCUs and Community Colleges?

President Obama announced a set of proposals last week, which are designed to make college more affordable. The plan, however, raises as many questions as it answers.

The idea is to use a rating system that rewards schools based on graduation rates, the percentage of lower-income students who attend the institution, the level of debt graduates leave school with, and what they earn in their first jobs. Those results would be compared against their peer institutions.

In theory, that makes sense. Schools that perform well and provide good service – and good outcomes – will be rewarded, while colleges and universities that fail to make the grade, as it were, would not.

How those measures would be established, what mitigating factors would be taken into consideration and what is considered a “peer” institution have yet to be defined.

Linking reward to education outcomes is nothing new. Many colleges, schools and departments at colleges and universities seek voluntary, individual accreditation in their fields, beyond the university’s overall accreditation from a regional authority. Programs in mass communications, business, architecture, law and the social sciences, for example, go through evaluations in cycles, often ranging 5-10 years, to ensure their curricula meet professional and scholarly standards.

Specialized accreditation, for many institutions, is akin to the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval.

Still, with the Department of Education and, hopefully, bipartisan Congressional support looking to create a new formula on which to base federal financial aid, some colleges and universities find cause for concern.

Currently, most of the $150 billion in student aid doled out by the feds annually is based on the number of students enrolled at a college or university. Graduation rates are not considered. Under Obama’s proposal, higher ranked schools would get a larger share of those funds.

Community colleges, small land grant institutions and historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs), for example, often take the students who come from lower performing rural and inner-city high schools, who tend to have lower SAT and ACT scores and who often don’t graduate in four to six years – although many do eventually graduate – because finances prevent them from going through school in a straight shot without amassing huge debt.

When the recent recession and the steady, but incrementally slow recovery are factored in, just how will success be defined?

Will private and public universities be in separate categories? Will the main campuses of large public universities, such as University of Florida, Michigan State, Penn State, etc., be treated differently than regional campuses or smaller state colleges and universities? Will there be new measures of graduation rates? Will there be a category that counts transfers or currently nontraditional students? Might students who enter, leave and come back within a certain time frame also be tracked?

What about schools with large endowments – like Harvard and Yale?

Even the way graduation figures currently are counted can raise questions.

Usually, the rate is based on an incoming class of full-time freshmen students under the age of 25 who graduate in four to six years with no break in service. So if a student drops out for a semester or a year to work or other reasons, or cuts back to part-time status, that student is no longer part of that class cohort and doesn’t show up in graduation rates.

If a student is ‘non-traditional,’ meaning she is older than the average freshman, she is not counted in the figures.

Many states have no mechanism for measuring the outcomes for those who don’t fit the traditional profile – which probably hasn’t existed for many college students since last group of Baby Boomers finished college.

But beyond the money, the way in which a quality education is determined, is going to be critical to the survival of many schools that rely heavily on federal aid to keep costs down and students enrolled.  Does a university lose money if a student takes a job in a field other than his major? If there is another economic downturn and jobs get harder to come by, can that really be held against a school?

On the surface, the president’s plan has merit, but like anything else in politics, the devil is in the details. To be sure, some changes will be made. The question is: can it be done equitably, without hurting programs that start further behind because of their unique mission to serve communities that previously have been ill or underserved?

Jackie Jones, a journalist and journalism educator, is director of the career transformation firm Jones Coaching LLC and author of “Taking Care of the Business of You: 7 Days to Getting Your Career on Track.”

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