Questions Shadow Higher Ed Reform for Students of Color

By Michelle Chen Jun 07, 2010

Under Obama’s education reform agenda, billions in grant money is headed down the pipeline, including a boost for community colleges and sweeping reforms in K-12 schools. Schools that focus on communities of color may have the most to gain and to lose. So who’s responsible for steering all that money coming down the pipe?

The Government Accountability Office has found some troubling blind spots in the federal oversight of grants under Title III and Title V of the Higher Education Act, which support colleges and universities that have a high-proportion of low-income students and students of color. An investigation last year revealed that the Department of Education:

lacked assurance that grantees appropriately manage federal funds, increasing the potential for fraud, waste, or abuse. For example, GAO identified $105,117 in questionable expenditures at one school, including student trips to amusement parks and an airplane global positioning system.

A follow-up study suggested that several months later, the Education Department has still not developed a comprehensive way to make sure the money goes toward libraries and not roller-coasters.

The grants are a vital funding stream for institutions serving Black, Native American, Asian American and other underrepresented communities. Funding for the programs reviewed by GAO—which may go towards infrastructure investments, academics or staff development—nearly tripled over 10 years. The researchers stressed that “[a] coordinated, risk-based approach, targeting monitoring and assistance to grantees with the greatest risk and needs is critical, especially as Education’s oversight responsibilities are expanding.”

At the same time, many “minority-serving institutions” (MSIs) are under pressure to consolidate their resources. As with the corporate-style reforms now reshaping public schools, some critics worry that Obama’s market-oriented “restructuring” plans will exacerbate the inequalities that the federal programs are designed to help level out.

Diverse Issues in Higher Education notes that the White House has floated various initiatives to “realign” these institutions, including a plan to consolidate Black, Latino and tribal-affiliated schools by rolling them “into a new, larger program featuring partnerships between MSIs and majority institutions.” Meanwhile, Washington is pushing institutions toward new funding mechanisms based on competition, as it has done with the controversial Race to the Top initiative for K-12 schools. The Department of Housing and Urban Development wants to encourage cooperation between smaller MSIs and more mainstream schools by consolidating individual funding streams into a central University Community Fund, distributed through a competitive process.

Some administrators worry that such proposals would place undue financial and structural restraints on schools serving communities of color, according to Diverse:

MSI leaders have concerns, noting that the realignment would force [historically Black colleges and universities] to compete with [Hispanic-serving institutions] and tribal colleges for limited funding—all while trying to attract interest from majority-White institutions for partnerships.

“Fundamentally I think it’s the wrong approach to build capacity at MSIs,” says Dr. Antonio Flores, president of the Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities. He notes there already is competition within the existing programs at NSF and HUD; as a result, not all applicants receive funding.”

The Obama administration’s education agenda emphasizes a hazy concept of competition, which shades into the debate over privatization, charter schools, attacks on teachers unions, and free-market buzzwords like “accountability.” Yet the White House is promising funding for reform apparently without ensuring that the funds will be invested wisely in the highest-needs schools.

All these initiatives aim to put more children on a college track. Yet many of the colleges and universities that have traditionally served the neediest students may see big changes in their budgets, and perhaps even bigger changes in their role in higher education.

Photo: istock/Chris Schmidt