Casting a Wider Net

After criticism from some black college leaders, the legislation for Obama's free community college proposal includes a new grant program aimed at HBCUs and minority-serving institutions.

July 13, 2015

When President Obama rolled out his free community college proposal earlier this year, the leaders of some historically black colleges weren’t happy about it.

The administration’s ambitious plan to send new federal money to states that eliminate tuition and fees for most community colleges students didn't include anything specifically for historically black colleges and universities.

Advocates for those institutions said at the time that they should have been included in the administration’s push for expanding college access since their institutions enroll significant numbers of low-income students. Some also saw free community college as a potential competitive threat, steering students away from their institutions in some cases.

But as Obama’s free community college proposal was introduced in Congress last week, groups representing historically black colleges were lining up in support of the legislation.

The bill includes a new program that sends grants to historically black colleges and other minority-serving institutions -- both public and private -- that eliminate or reduce tuition for low-income students pursing a bachelor’s degree. The grants would cover two years' worth of an institution’s tuition and fees, capped at the average public four-year college's in-state tuition, which was about $9,000 last year.

The program, which accounts for $10 billion of the legislation’s overall $90 billion-over-ten-years price tag, would subsidize the tuition and fees of nearly 300,000 students, according to the bill’s sponsors. Some 280 historically black colleges and other minority-serving institutions, such as Hispanic-serving institutions or tribal colleges, would be eligible for the grants.

Michael Lomax, president of UNCF, formerly known as the United Negro College Fund, said he was “delighted” that the Obama administration’s free community college plan was expanded. After the plan was first introduced this year, he said, UNCF and others “vigorously” made the case for including HBCUs and other minority-serving institutions to members of Congress and the Obama administration.

“We think that this is a recognition that private HBCUS as well as public HBCUs have a strong constituency of undergraduates who are low income and first generation,” he said. “I don’t think there was enough recognition of that in the early community college proposal. That’s being rectified here.”

The impetus for expanding the free community college bill to include grants for historically black colleges and minority-serving institutions came from members of Congress, not within the administration, according to Ivory Toldson, deputy director of the White House Initiative on Historically Black Colleges and Universities. Still, he said, there “wasn’t any pushback on this at all from the administration.”

Toldson earlier this year in an Education Department blog post defended the ways HBCUs would benefit under Obama’s free community college proposal even without the new money for HBCUs.

He said last week that “there’s good reason” for the administration to go further and explicitly include HBCUs in the proposal. Aside from financially helping historically black colleges, he pointed out the colleges that participate will have to adopt evidence-based institutional reforms that improve outcomes.

In an email to higher education supporters last week, James Kvaal, deputy director of the White House Domestic Policy Council, called the grants to minority-serving colleges and universities in the legislation “critical investments in some of our nation's most important institutions.”

The federal government funding two years of free (or significantly reduced) tuition at HBCUs and minority-serving institutions is somewhat of a shift from the Obama free community college proposal -- and other liberal calls for debt-free or tuition-free college -- in that it would cover the cost of some private institutions.

“It’s a big question mark in my mind if we should do that,” said Mamie Voight, director of policy research at the Institute for Higher Education Policy, which advocates for low-income students.

Although it’s good that the bill expands tuition-free education to more low-income students, she said, “when we think about our public expenditures and where we need to make decisions about prioritizing funding, I think there is justification for leaning toward public options.”

“In a case where we’re not yet expanding tuition-free to the broad array of public institutions that low-income students should have access to, like nonselective state colleges, it’s a big question mark in my mind if we should be including privates,” she said.

In addition, Voigt said that it would be better for policy makers to “target affordability promises toward specific student low-income groups rather than institutions.”

Unlike other programs, like the Pell Grant, for instance, that operate as a voucher for low-income students to choose among any accredited institution, the grant program in the bill would be limited to minority-serving institutions that meet certain criteria.

Deborah Santiago, vice president for policy at Excelencia, which advocates for Hispanic students in higher education, said she thinks there is some value in gearing the grant program toward institutions rather than students.

“It’s not an either/or approach,” she said of the federal government directly subsidizing institutions or students directly. “I do think institutions can be an effective intermediary. Does it constrain choice? It does constrain choice. The onus is on the institutions, however, to improve.”

Still, the legislation, sponsored by Senator Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin and Representative Bobby Scott of Virginia, both Democrats, stands little chance of moving ahead in the Republican-controlled Congress.


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