Higher Ed Policy Flurry Has Mixed Outcomes for HBCUs

If you haven’t been paying attention to higher education news over the last 48 hours, you likely missed legislative proposals and new laws which will have signifcant impact on historically black colleges for years to come.

Congress has advanced the “Strengthening Career and Technical Education for the 21st Century Act” to the White House for signature by President Donald Trump, which will revise some elements of coordination between the federal government and states in how career and technical education (CTE) is funded and administered.

It will require states to set goals for career and technical training access, and will have two years to meet those goals. They will also be required to report on success rates of students based upon metrics of race, gender, economic status, and ethnicity; along with high school graduation rates and post-secondary enrollment data.

The new rules will give institutions potential access to more than $1.2 billion in annual federal grants supporting career and technicial training through 2024. HBCUs are mentioned in the legislation as a preferred partner for states in developing their goals and initiatives to increase work readiness, but are not specifically outlined as sector targets like tribal colleges and educational programs.

Historically black career and technical colleges in Alabama, Mississippi, South Carolina and Texas are likely to benefit from the legislation, but four-year institutions offering CTE associates degrees in areas such as nursing, healthcare administration, criminal justice and agriculture will have to make closer in-roads with state higher education oversight agencies and employers to connect with planning and potential funding.

These connections were a recent point of discussion for school and industry executives during the United Negro College Fund’s Career Pathways convening.

This legislation comes just as the Department of Education has published its proposed changes to the government’s borrower defense policy which gave students the opportunity to make claims of fraud or negligence against schools awarding degrees with little draw in the employment marketplace. From the Chronicle of Higher Education:

The new rules would not only spell out how much relief is available to borrowers, but also narrow who is eligible for it and restrict the time window in which borrowers may apply for such relief. Under the new regulations, the budget for borrower-defense relief and loan forgiveness in the case of an abrupt institutional closure would drop by $12.7 billion next year.

In arguably the biggest change, students applying for borrower defense would need to prove that their college had knowingly misled them or demonstrated “a reckless disregard for the truth,” according to an overview published by the department. Under the previous rule, borrowers were entitled to forgiveness regardless of the college’s intent. Experts said the shift could make it nearly impossible for students to succeed in a borrower-defense claim, particularly as the department rolls back efforts to investigate predatory behavior.

The policy shift simultaneously spells good and concerning news for HBCUs. It adds protections to black colleges from being held responsible in student or graduate claims of being willfully defrauded in paying for degrees which do not give easy access to jobs after graduation, which is largely driven by geography and industrial demand rather than institutional value.

But it also clears the way for for-profit institutions to surge in marketing and recruiting from the student base that is likeliest to be best served by HBCUs; adult learners and high-achieving black students who do not enroll in four-year colleges right out of high school.

Without increased marketing, aggressive outreach and targeting, or the infrastructure to grow both, HBCUs could be at a competitive disadvantage thanks to rules and laws which by nature will help them; along with every other school type in the marketplace.

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