Historically black colleges and universities flunk Obama’s College Scorecard

Brendan Thomas Contributor
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In his State of the Union Address, President Barack Obama said the Department of Education’s newly released College Scorecard would help parents and students “compare schools based on a simple criteria: where you can get the most bang for your educational buck.”

According to the latest statistics, America’s historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) consistently fail to meet that “criteria.”

A Wall Street Journal analysis of the Scorecard puts HBCUs next to for-profit art schools when it comes to leaving students with high amounts of debt and degrees written in “red ink.”

The free-market American Enterprise Institute’s Frederick Hess told The Daily Caller HBCUs are a “dangerous” topic of conversation in education circles.

“The subject’s racially charged,” he said. “If we were to apply the gainful-employment method the federal government applies to for-profit schools to HBCUs, their students would no longer receive federal financial aid.”

In 2012, the Department of Education  described 218 post-secondary schools that could lose federal student aid if their students continue to exhibit three-year default rates over 30 percent. Fourteen were HBCUs. That means, of approximately 6,900 accredited schools nationwide, 3.2 percent could lose federal support, while 13.3 percent of HBCUs face that risk.

Morehouse College in Atlanta — Martin Luther King, Jr.’s alma mater and one of the most famous HBCUs — is not in as much trouble as those 218 yet, but its numbers reflect the troubling trend. In 2011-2012, only 36 percent of Morehouse students had graduated in four years, and only 55 percent had graduated in six years, according to the National Center for Educational Statistics. And whether they graduated or not, 76 percent owed loans averaging over $40,000 to cover annual tuition of $23,234, a number the College Scorecard terms “high.” In addition, 27 percent of Morehouse students defaulted on loan payments.

Jeanna Robinson of the Pope Center for Higher Education Policy called the Morehouse default rate “appalling.” The student loan default rate is 13.8 percent nationally, while at for-profit institutions — a diverse group ranging from University of Phoenix to cosmetology schools — the average rate is 22.7 percent.

Nationally, the average student debt is $27,253. At all-male Morehouse, it’s nearly $10,000 higher. Only The Creative Center, the Manhattan School of Music and the Southern California Institute of Architecture — three for-profit art schools — show higher student debt, according to the Journal’s findings.

At Morehouse’s sister school, Spelman College in Atlanta, students graduate at a higher rate, with an average of $4,000 less in loan debt than their Morehouse counterparts. Spelman students also default on their loans at a lower rate than students at Morehouse. Most students at HBCUs, however, fare significantly worse than Morehouse students.

Just 41 percent of students at Clark Atlanta University graduate in six years, leaving campus with an average $24,653 of debt., estimates Clark Atlanta students receive a 30-year return on their investment of negative $109,000.

The online job compensation calculator estimates students at Shaw University in North Carolina receive a return of negative $112,000. A negative “ROI” means students at these two schools do worse financially over a 30-year period than if they had never attended.

Hess says the reason for such poor scores could be many HBCU students often come from low-income backgrounds and are first-generation college attendees. But because “nobody looks,” he said, there is too little research on the topic to know for sure.

“It’s politically incorrect to talk about,” the Center for College Affordability’s Anthony Vedder told TheDC. Vedder said when he tried to raise the issue with black educators, “I almost got chased out of the room.”

Students want to attend HBCU’s because of their historical prestige, said Robert Morse, the data director of U.S. News and World Report’s annual college rankings. Because many black students want only the HBCU experience, and the schools receive special federal designation and support, Morse explained, his magazine ranks them separately from mainstream colleges and universities.

Robert McCluskey, an education and child policy expert at the libertarian Cato Institute, pointed out that unlike other institutions of higher learning, HBCUs receive direct federal funding to cover their basic operating costs. In fact, HBCUs are a line item in the federal budget.

The Higher Education Act of 1965 guaranteed support for HBCUs, most of which were established in the decades following the Civil War. Intended to educate freed slaves, they are products of the Jim Crow South, when former slave states created segregated post-secondary public schools rather than integrate white ones. Church organizations were founding nominally private all-black schools, like Morehouse and Spelman, at the same time.

The Department of Education reports that in 2008, five federal agencies and departments awarded more than 10 percent of their higher education spending to HBCUs. The Departments of Justice, Homeland Security and Housing and Urban Development each contributed more than 30 percent of their higher education spending. HBCUs received 33 percent of all federal support for facilities, and 14 percent for un-categorized “other” support that year.

The next year, 2009, the most recent one for which figures are available, HBCUs also received a disproportionate amount of federal support, though 105 of them made up just one percent of America’s total number of accredited institutions of higher learning. Justice awarded 72 percent of its funds budgeted to higher education initiatives to HBCUs in 2009.

As HBCUs continue to lose tuition money, due to stricter federal student lending rules, grants from federal agencies have become a stopgap measure to continue funding them. Yet the grants present a new problem. In 2011, Morehouse paid $1.2 million to settle a Justice Department investigation of the college’s misuse of NASA funds.

Then in 2012, the Department of Education awarded $227.9 million to HBCUs around the country to “help these important institutions continue to provide their students with the quality education they need to compete in the global economy.” Morehouse received $2.3 million.

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