HBCUs Absent From Feds’ Gainful Employment Negotiations: Oversight or Strategy?

The US Department of Education will begin a new rulemaking negotiation period in December aimed at reforming its gainful employment policies; guidelines which suggest punishment for schools producing graduates who struggle to get jobs and pay back student loans.

The list of negotiators and their alternates was released earlier this week, and is comprised of executives, lawyers, advocates and experts in virtually every sector of higher education. But one group is notably not listed; minority serving institutions.

Depending upon where you stand in support of or proximity to the ED under Secretary Betsy DeVos, the omission could either be seen as a major gaffe or a strategic stand down from HBCUs and their advocates.

From one perspective, its weird that the agency would intentionally omit HBCUs from a working group making new rules on how schools could or should be punished if graduates do not get jobs. While HBCUs have struggled in the public square with stories about individual student debt held by black graduates, they have been on a hot streak in recent years with perfect compliance in federal loan repayment default rates.


That suggests that in busting myths about unemployed or underemployed college graduates, HBCUs aren’t doing badly when it comes to our alumni paying back their loans or giving back to their institutions.

Give these stats, it would seem HBCUs would be a welcomed partner in this rulemaking process. And when you add this data to DeVos’ awkwardly consistent outreach to HBCUs, it doesn’t seem like this list was compiled with HBCUs out of sight and out of mind. After all, the DeVos Administration has been willing to work with HBCUs on public and private areas of support; from her willingness to be booed mercilessly at an HBCU graduation or to fix sector-specific funding issues.

So maybe HBCUs didn’t believe this to be a necessary fight. But if groups like the Thurgood Marshall College Fund, United Negro College Fund and National Association for Equal Opportunity in Higher Education didn’t find strategy in this particular discussion, then the hope is that the agency is working with these same groups on other key issues like borrower defense, higher ed re-authorization, student loan reform and other major issues impacting HBCU revenue.

But these groups still have to tread carefully. The list of negotiators is full of advocates and representatives of for-profit institutions, which today enroll the biggest share of black students nationwide despite falling enrollment at a majority of these schools. Even if gainful employment is not a hot topic for HBCU advocates, there is benefit in monitoring for-profit agenda setting on the topic, to gain better perspective on how policies may help to encourage more students to enroll in non-HBCUs.

There is still a long way to in helping Sec. DeVos fully accept HBCUs into her vision of higher education as a workforce development vein of free enterprise, but all indications appear to be that the agency is open to engagement and support.

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