Free Community College Plan Puts Strain on Historically Black Colleges

Cheyney University, America’s oldest historically black college, is under fire as the threat of financial collapse potentially looms in its future.  As one of Pennsylvania’s fourteen public, state-run universities, Cheyney University has incurred a 12.3 million dollar debt in the last five years due to unpaid student loans and increased pensions. The university is not alone in its struggle, as most states around the country have continued cutting higher education spending. However, many Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) have been some of the hardest hit by tightened budgets as they face lowered enrollment numbers and student bodies that are nearly entirely reliant on financial aid.Cheyney University Library

Cheyney University’s financial crisis is particularly dramatic. The school has seen enrollment drop to a mere 1000 students since its highest peak in 1983, and graduation rates are at an abysmal 9%. The school’s student loan default rates currently stand at 28.2%, nearly three times higher than the national average student loan default rate of 9.1%. In an attempt at combating the school’s financial trouble, the administration has cut nearly 23% of its staff and discretionary spending has been cut in half. Pennsylvania’s auditor general, Eugene DePascal, has called on the State System of Higher Education and the legislature to save the university from its financial troubles.

President Obama’s recent announcement regarding his plans to make community college free for first-time college students nationwide has caught the attention of many in the HBCU community. The proposal has drawn responses from many black educators and administrators who have mixed feelings about the proposal. While many are optimistic about the chance at providing more African-American students with a chance to earn a college education at no cost, there are concerns about the impact the plan could have on HBCU’s existing enrollment struggles.

The Root collected reactions from HBCU & community leaders who were generally receptive to President Obama’s plan. Coppin State University president, Mortimer Neufville, recognized that African-American students are more likely to have specific concerns in deciding to attend college that can make community college more appealing. However, he also acknowledges that free community college could potentially “divert a good segment of the student population away from [HBCUs].” But Neufville also recognizes that this could provide HBCUs with the opportunity to create better transfer programs and partnerships with existing community colleges to bolster overall graduation rates.

Texas’ Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D) acknowledges the need for state cooperation in order to adequately fund the plan, and he is apprehensive in believing the issue will not turn into a political issue, particularly in Southern states with strong Republican opposition to the President. “The focus won’t be on it as a great educational opportunity; the focus will be ‘anti-Obama’… I’m really hoping states will come around and see this benefits all people and … in terms of the immigration-reform fight, could eliminate the need for H-1B visas,” says Rep. Johnson, seeing the potential for the impact on students affected by citizenship issues.

Micah Ali, president of the Compton Unified School District, sees potential roadblocks to President Obama’s plan by recognizing the difficulties that students who work full time experience in attempting to finish their degree in a timely manner. He anticipates the need for community colleges to make their standards more rigorous and improve their academic support for students, in order to bolster their chances of successful transfer into a four-year university.

For more information on President Obama’s plan for Tuition-Free Community College, click here.

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