Clinton vs. Sanders on Black Colleges

Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders -- and their supporters -- spar over their plans for historically black colleges, as President Obama's complicated legacy looms.

March 9, 2016

As they battle for voters across the South, Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders are drawing contrasts between their plans for historically black colleges and universities.

Both candidates last year proposed ambitious plans that would significantly increase federal spending on higher education. And they’re now debating which of those plans would most benefit students at historically black colleges.

In recent weeks, Clinton surrogates have slammed Sanders’s plan to make public colleges tuition free, saying it would harm private black colleges and leave their students “out in the cold.”

“By focusing exclusively on making public college free, Sanders’s plan wouldn’t spend a dime on private HBCUs and threatens roughly 50 percent of HBCUs that are not public,” Representative Cedric Richmond of Louisiana said last month.

Another Clinton ally, Representative Jim Clyburn of South Carolina, said that Sanders’s call for tuition-free public college would force some private black colleges to close.

“[If] you start handing out two years of free college at public institutions, are you ready for all the black, private HBCUs to close down?” he told BuzzFeed News last month. “That’s what’s going to happen.”

Clinton’s higher education plan calls for $25 billion over 10 years to support private historically black colleges and other minority-serving institutions. Her campaign said the plan was modeled after a program that was proposed in Congress last summer as a companion to President Obama’s free community college idea.

That program, proposed by Representative Bobby Scott of Virginia and Senator Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin, both Democrats, would send grants to historically black colleges and other minority-serving institutions that eliminate or reduce tuition for low-income students pursuing a bachelor’s degree. The grants would cover two years’ worth of the institution’s tuition and fees.

Some supporters of Sanders’s plans have pushed back on the Clinton criticism.

Tressie McMillan Cottom, an assistant professor of sociology at Virginia Commonwealth University, who said she provided feedback to the Sanders campaign about its plan, wrote on her blog that the “rhetoric of HBCUs starving each other to death” was “politically convenient but destructive.”

“Private and public HBCUs are not in competition with each other,” she wrote. “The rhetoric from Hillary Clinton and Clinton surrogates suggesting that free tuition at public HBCUs would kill private HBCUs is not empirically grounded.”

The Sanders campaign has put out its own HBCU-specific plan, which says that “everyone in America who has the desire and the ability will be able to receive a tuition-free education at a public HBCU.” His campaign noted that 76 percent of students enrolled in historically black colleges attended public ones.

The campaign also said that Sanders is calling for a “$30 billion fund to support private, nonprofit HBCUs, minority-serving institutions and other nonprofit schools.” It’s not clear how much of that would be directed to historically black colleges. But the funding, according to the campaign, could be used by colleges “to reduce tuition and the cost of attending an HBCU.”

The plan also “provides rewards and continued funding for the best-performing schools while providing program assistance to schools still trying to improve.”

Sanders’s HBCU plan also says that “unlike Secretary Clinton, Bernie does not believe that we should unfairly punish HBCUs by fining them for their nonperforming student loans.”

That appears to be a reference to Clinton’s endorsement of the idea of risk sharing for colleges and universities that participate in the federal student loan program. Under such plans, colleges would be required to pay back some share of the defaulted loans of their former students.

Many historically black colleges have struggled with large numbers of students defaulting on their loans and were for years exempt from the Higher Education Act’s requirement that colleges with high student loan default rates lose access to federal student aid funding. As tougher default-rate standards for all colleges kicked in over the past several years, many black colleges again found themselves scrambling to meet the new test, which measured defaults based on a three-year window instead of a two-year one.

The Obama administration also retroactively adjusted the default rates of some colleges that otherwise would have failed the default-rate test, including some historically black colleges, though officials have declined to provide a full list.

Both Sanders and Clinton are angling for support from black colleges and universities against the backdrop of the Obama administration’s complicated relationship with some black colleges, which argue that the administration has not done enough to support them.

As recently as this past January, for instance, Obama singled out graduation rates at some HBCUs as “a source of concern.” Black colleges leaders were also furious over the Obama administration’s decision in 2011 to tighten the requirements for federal PLUS loans, which led to large numbers of families being denied the loans to attend HBCUs.

Johnny C. Taylor Jr., president of the Thurgood Marshall College Fund, which raises money for scholarships for students at public historically black colleges, was among the most vocal critics of the Obama administration’s PLUS loan policy and its overall relationship with black colleges. He said he found it “encouraging” that both Democratic presidential candidates were pressing the issue of historically black colleges and universities far more than politicians have during previous election cycles.

Taylor said that he was more supportive of Clinton’s plan because it would better target funding to families that most need it. He called that a “huge difference” from Sanders’s plan to provide tuition-free college to students regardless of their income.

In addition, Taylor said that he appreciated the level of detail in Clinton’s plan for HBCUs, which includes a proposal to allow parent PLUS loan borrowers to refinance their debt at lower interest rates, which Sanders has not proposed. Taylor said he appreciated that Clinton had singled out HBCUs in her original New College Compact when it was first announced.

“Bernie has come a little late to the party,” he added. “Hillary has made HBCUs a core part of her plan from the beginning. That’s not lost on the community.”

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Michael Stratford

Michael Stratford, Reporter, covers federal policy for Inside Higher Ed. He joined the publication in August 2013 after a stint covering the Arkansas state legislature for The Associated Press. He previously worked and interned at Kiplinger’s Personal Finance magazine and The Chronicle of Higher Education. At The Chronicle, he wrote about federal policy and covered higher education issues in the 2012 elections. Michael grew up in Belmont, Mass. and graduated from Cornell University, where he was managing editor of The Cornell Daily Sun.

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