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An HBCU president reflects on Obama's initiative

Readers of this blog will know that President Obama signed an executive order last week ago reaffirming and strengthening the White House Initiative on Historically Black Colleges and Universities, a document first signed by President Carter 30 years ago.

The Washington area is rich in HBCUs. The following letter, though, comes from Marvalene Hughes, president of Dillard University in New Orleans and a former member of the president's HBCU Advisory Board.

I asked her to explain the significance of the president's recomittment to HBCUs and especially to hers, a resilient survivor of Hurricane Katrina.

Here is her letter.

I want to personally thank President Obama for signing the White House Initiative on Historically Black Colleges and Universities. His proposed budget includes $98 million dollars in new funds for HBCU programs in 2011. This is very good news for our students who need all the help the president can give them.

In the years since Hurricane Katrina, Dillard University has built back better and stronger than ever before, refurbishing nearly three dozen existing buildings and constructing two new LEED-certified gold environmentally sustainable buildings offering state-of-the-art laboratories, lecture halls, conference rooms and community health facilities. Our enrollment numbers are inching up. Our graduation rates remain steady. Over 40 percent of Dillard graduates enroll in graduate and professional degree programs. We are one of the top producers of African American physics graduates who earn doctorates. Our rate of student placement in graduate schools and the workplace is among the highest in the nation and has earned the university a place in the top tier of Historically Black Colleges and Universities according to U.S. News and World Report 2009.

If we are to fulfill President Obama's goal of providing "competitive education from cradle to career," we need to make education loans more accessible to HBCU students. Most Dillard undergraduates come from humble beginnings and some are the first in their family to go to college. Although the president's proposed increase in Federal Pell Grant monies is laudable -an overall increase of $400 million dollars since taking office--a large percentage of families that apply for student aid at HBCUs cannot access parent and private alternative loans because they are credit-dependent. The cost of tuition, room and board for one student for one year often exceeds the average Dillard parent's yearly income. It is not the upper middle class parents who have trouble borrowing money to send their children to college, it is the parents of students at universities like Dillard.

Our students have the option to borrow money to go to school, but the debt load is great. Minor disruptions in student financial aid packages force our young people to "stop-out" and acquire a job as a bridge to return, or drop out of school for good. The effect on the student is disastrous. The effect on the University is more subtle but can be equally damaging. As retention rates fall, a university's reputation suffers, and people wonder why they can not keep students past their first year. We believe our academic programs are first-rate, but the financial options we can offer to a struggling student are few.

As the president works to strengthen our nation's Historically Black Colleges and Universities, I hope he will consider restructuring student loan programs to equalize the advantages for students at Dillard and similar institutions. This is the "Change" our students desperately need.

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By Daniel de Vise  |  March 5, 2010; 9:52 AM ET
Categories:  Finance , Public policy  | Tags: Dillard University, HBCUs, Obama administration  
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