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HBCUs Divided over Free Community College Plan
1/21/2015 3:57:41 PM

Lester C. Newman

Lezli Baskerville
By Freddie Allen

WASHINGTON (NNPA) – Black college educators and supporters are sharply split over whether President Obama’s proposal to offer a free two-year community college education to students making progress toward earning an associate or bachelor’s degree would hurt are harm Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs).

Lezli Baskerville, president and CEO of the National Association for Equal Opportunity in Higher Education (NAFEO), a nonprofit network of Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) and Predominantly Black Institutions (PBIs), including community colleges, said that for students who have a gap in funding or choose to go to a two-year institution and don’t have adequate funding, America’s College Promise would create another opportunity for them.

“We are trying to make sure that students that want to go and get a technical certification or some training to get their foot in the door, can do that,” said Baskerville. “We also want to incentivize and facilitate students who want to get a four-year degree doing that, especially low-income students for whom options are very, very limited.” Baskerville said that the jury is still out on whether a student would opt to go to a two-year college for free instead of going to an HBCU.

“If they’re going to a two-year institution, they’re going to get a certificate or a two-year degree, something to get them market-ready or entrepreneurship-ready,” explained Baskerville. “If they’re going to a four-year HBCU they’re going because they appreciate the ethos of historic Black colleges that are built on the traditions of the African American community of family, faith, fellowship, service and social justice.”

However, Lester C. Newman, president of Jarvis Christian College in Hawkins, Texas, believes HBCUs will pay a price. “They are going to suffer,” he said. “Not too many schools can operate with just the third and fourth level, especially four-year institutions that don’t have graduate programs. You don’t get the research dollars that can help sustain you. You rely on students being there from their freshman to their senior year. But if you are going to lose a great portion of those students for the first two years, you really will have to change your model, your business plan.”

“By 2020, an estimated 35 percent of job openings will require at least a bachelor’s degree and 30 percent will require some college or an associate’s degree,” White House officials said. “Forty percent of college students are enrolled at one of America’s more than 1,100 community colleges, which offer students affordable tuition, open admission policies, and convenient locations.”

Seventy-five percent of the funding for the proposal, called “America’s College Promise” will come from the federal government with participating states contributing the rest of the money needed to cover tuition costs. White House officials estimate that the program will cost the federal government $60 billion over 10 years, if all states participate.

Nearly all of the HBCUs are in states where Republicans control the legislature and the governor’s mansion. Getting them – or the Republican majority in the House and Senate – to buy into President Obama’s vision will likely be an uphill battle.

As President Newman noted, spending on higher education is already being cut by most states.

“Of course, you support any opportunity where people can go to school for free,” he said. “The details are what I am concerned about. I don’t see them adding any money to higher education, just redirecting funds. This program will take away funds from private schools. Any proposal that does that is going to hurt us tremendously.”

Ivory Toldson, the deputy director of the White House Initiative on Historically Black Colleges and Universities, said that community colleges currently educate more Black students than any other single sector, partly because of limited financial resources.

“Having a program that allows them to cut that financial barrier altogether to go into an institution that can help prepare them for an associate’s degree or to transfer to a four-year college, I think is a worthwhile program,” said Toldson.

Whether community college students will be less likely to enroll in an HBCU after the first two years in another setting is being hotly debated. Regardless of the outcome, Black colleges are looking at a new reality.


Visitor Comments

Submitted By: Johnny C. Taylor, Jr. Submitted: 1/22/2015
I have the privilege of serving as the President & CEO of the Thurgood Marshall College Fund (TMCF), the only national organization representing the interests of the country's 47 publicly-supported Historically Black Colleges (HBCUs) and Predominately Black Institutions (PBIs). Given that nearly 80% of all HBCU students are enrolled in public colleges, we take this situation very seriously. First, we agree with President Newman of Jarvis Christian College that there is little doubt that the Obama Administration's community college plan, as so far described, will negatively impact HBCUs -- private ones in particular. As President Newman rightly points out "Not too many schools can operate with just the third and fourth level ..." It is very likely that a first-generation, poor student in Texas will opt for a free community college for the first 2 years when the alternative is a good, but not free, four-year private HBCU like Jarvis Christian College. Whether this is a good decision for the student is up for debate; but what is not debatable is that the Jarvis Christian Colleges of the world will almost certainly lose students if this proposal becomes law. So, TMCF agrees that President Newman and his fellow private HBCU college presidents have real reason for concern. Although TMCF represents publicly-supported HBCUs and PBIs, which presumably would be less impacted if this were to become law, we are nonetheless not immune to the potential consequences of America's College Promise, which is why we will be working the Republican-led Congress and the White House to identify a way to offer the first two years of college for free at ANY state institution -- whether it be a 2 or 4-year college. We want to ensure America's college promise is more than just a community college promise; after all, if that is the intent, President Obama should've called it "America's Community College Promise" in the spirit of real transparency and integrity. Johnny C. Taylor, Jr. Thurgood Marshall College Fund Visit us at:

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