The middle class and American Dream are again in the spotlight as the 2016 presidential campaign is taking shape, and as part of her pitch, Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton has rolled out a plan to make college more accessible and affordable to a key constituency - black parents and children attending historically black colleges.
"We're going to work closely with (HBCUs) ... because they serve some of America's brightest students, who need the most support and too often have gotten the least of it," Clinton wrote this week in announcing the New College Compact and highlighting her support for HBCUs.
Under the plan, students at public HBCUs could attend community colleges for free and would not have to take out loans at four-year institutions through federal-state funding partnerships. It includes a $25 billion fund to support low- and middle-income students at private HBCUs - often left off the table in discussions about college affordability, despite their role in educating students with similar financial challenges.
The proposal also addresses hefty student loan repayments, which can often handicap all young people as they start life after college, making it harder to build wealth. Clinton's plan would cap repayments at 10 percent of monthly income.
Several HBCU presidents and stakeholders, including some who spoke with the Clinton campaign this week, praised the early details of the plan. Supporters noted that HBCUs have gotten some of the political spotlight in recent years, with President Obama signing an executive order that established an HBCU initiative and called for Congress to give $2 billion to black colleges in 2010. GOP presidential candidate Rand Paul visited Howard University in 2013 and Bowie State University in March in an effort to reach out to black voters.
Dillard University President Walter Kimbrough said the proposal makes sense for schools like his, with a higher percentage of Pell grant-eligible students than most community colleges in Louisiana, despite being a private institution. With renewed attention on community colleges, Kimbrough suggested targeting black schools is also part of the solution to address the access gap.
"If you're going to create a new program geared towards low-income students, our sector enrolls more than anyone," said Kimbrough. "We're not just important constituents; we play an important role in moving the nation forward."
Baltimore's Morgan State University President David Wilson called the proposal "revolutionary" and "potentially transformative" for students who want to go to college but can't afford to.
"Many of them are losing their drive and the ambition to even pursue a college education," Wilson said. "This is the population that's growing in America."
The country's 105 public and private HBCUs represent three percent of colleges and universities and enroll 10 percent of African-American undergraduates, but produce one in five black college graduates. The overwhelming majority either take out student loans to pay for school or come from families with an income that qualifies them for federal Pell grants.
According to the National Center of Education Statistics, about 20 percent of black students graduate from college within four years, compared to 43 percent of white students. A recent survey of 64 HBCUs by the Journal for Blacks in Higher Education showed the vast majority of institutions surveyed reported six-year completion rates of less than 50 percent.
And with black families hit harder during the recent recession, their ability to help pay for college has been hobbled by loss of home equity, unemployment, and decreased savings.
Cheryl Smith, spokeswoman for the United Negro College Fund—which represents 37 private HBCUs and provides scholarships for thousands of students attending HBCUs across the country—said on Friday that there is a lot to like about the plan, but that more details are needed.
"We think the plan includes some real solutions and a real investment of tangible help to HBCUs," Smith said. "Some of the Democratic candidates have talked about debt-free college, but the focus has been primarily on public institutions and community colleges, not so much on HBCUs. There's not a lot of discussion about this segment of higher education and how the campaigns are going to put proposals on the table that advance minority education."
Clinton's plan borrows from legislation that has already stalled in Congress - which would also have to approve her version, should Clinton win election next fall - and policies already being pushed by groups like UNCF.
Smith also pointed out problems with the Clinton plan, including the federal-state partnership approach.
"As we've seen with the expansion of Medicaid and other federal programs, there are some states, including Southern states that simply do not want to participate," Smith said, noting that while UNCF doesn't represent public HBCUs, many are located in the South. "What happens if states decline? That has to be fleshed out. That is potentially a weakness that we have to have a conversation about."