HBCU Insights: How college ratings reversal could benefit HBCUs

A column by Dr. Larry J. Walker

In 2013 President Obama outlined a plan to introduce a college ratings system to provide prospective students and their parents with the tools to make informed decisions. The proposed system was consistent with the President’s view that students from under-served communities encountered obstacles that hindered their effort to attend college. Based on comments from the President, colleges throughout the country would be judged based on criteria including loan debt, graduation rates and after college income. Supporters believed the ratings system would hold post-secondary institutions accountable by creating transparency. However, some policymakers, college administrators and stakeholders raised concerns including: (1) the government exceeding their right to evaluate schools and (2) the impact the system would have on institutions that serve predominantly students from under-served communities including historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs). Concerns from the HBCU community regarding the proposed system would continue throughout the development process.

Members of the HBCU community were apprehensive because of complications relating to 2011 changes to the PLUS loan program, which impacted school attrition rates. Several HBCUs experienced a drop in enrollment because of new loan guidelines that disqualified low income and middle class families. Subsequently, some HBCUs implemented cost cutting measures including eliminating staff and curtailing programs. Traditionally HBCUs enroll low income and first generation college students. Consequently, regulatory or statutory changes can have a long-term impact on their ability to increase graduation rates.

Throughout the development process HBCU administrators and supporters lamented that the ratings system would have an equally devastating impact as the PLUS loan change. According to a study by the National Center for Education Statistics HBCUs were disproportionately impacted by the loan requirements in comparison to other post-secondary institutions. HBCUs were fearful that implementing a college ratings system would unfairly penalize universities dedicated to educating students from under-served communities.

The administration asserted that the new system would ensure all students had access to important information relating to cost, retention rates and student debt. Throughout his tenure President Obama has sought to level the playing field for first generation, minority and low-income students. For instance, the President outlined a free community college proposal that would likely increase college completion rates. However, despite the President’s record of supporting pathways to success for under-served students’ members of Congress opposed the college ratings system.

Senator Lamar Alexander, Chairman of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee along with Congressman John Kline, Chairman of the House Education and Workforce Committee indicated they did not support a ratings system. Both members believed the plan was intrusive and would unnecessarily burden post-secondary institutions. In fact, Senator Alexander included language in a bill that would have blocked the Obama administration from implementing the system.

The controversy surrounding the system caused the U.S. Department of Education to announce that they will abandon the use of certain metrics. Post-secondary institutions will not be compared to other colleges based on graduation rates, student debt along with other measurables. As a result, HBCUs won’t have to worry about fighting comparisons to large post-secondary institutions with significant endowments. Holding HBCUs to the same standard as predominantly White institutions (PWIs) that educate students from middle class and affluent backgrounds would be difficult. Throughout their history HBCUs have encountered several obstacles including inequitable funding, which hinders their ability to fund scholarships and offer certain programs.

HBCUs continue to educate students from under-served communities. Their mission to enroll Black students with limited resources is consistent with President Obama’s call to open opportunities for all students. Without HBCUs students with limited social capital would not have the opportunity to attend college. HBCUs continue to play a critical role in preparing Black students to compete in the global marketplace. Thus, expanding opportunities for students from under-served backgrounds should include implementing policies that ensure HBCUs remain viable.


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Dr. Larry J. Walker is an educational consultant focused on supporting historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs). His research examines the impact environmental factors have on the academic performance and social emotional functioning of students from HBCUs.

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