Sunday, May 24, 2015

By David H. Swinton, Henry N. Tisdale, Luns C. Richardson, Cleveland L. Sellers Jr. and Lady June Cole
Guest Columnists

Columbia, SC -- This spring, the U.S. Department of Education released a draft proposal for its long-awaited college-ratings system. Unfortunately, the system promises to be an example of federal overreach that does little to provide real solutions to the urgent challenges facing South Carolina students and institutions of higher education.

As presidents of five of South Carolina's historically black colleges and universities, we share the concerns of parents and students about the need to make college costs and value more transparent. But we have grave doubts that the Obama administration's college-ratings system will truly be fair and reliable, or that it will incentivize college access, help make college more affordable and boost graduation rates as intended. In fact, the system could create perverse incentives to game the ratings, leading to reduced access to college for low-income and minority students.

Under the ratings system, schools would be ranked based on affordability, access and outcomes, such as graduation rates. Starting in 2018, President Obama wants to use the ratings as a basis for allocating federal student aid.

To take on that new and unprecedented role, the federal government has to ensure that the ratings are fair and reliable. That's no simple assignment.

The core challenge to creating a fair and reliable ratings system is ensuring that it makes apples-to-apples comparisons of similarly situated institutions with similar missions and similar challenges. It would be patently unfair, for example, to compare the graduation rates of under-resourced historically black colleges and universities, with their mission of educating low-income students — many of them first-generation, low-income students who are under-prepared for college -- with the graduation rates of the country's most selective and richly endowed universities. In 2014, endowments for the nation's top 10 colleges totaled more than $180 billion -- 106 times greater than the total endowments for the top 10 historically black colleges. In fact, most historically black colleges have endowments of less than $50 million, generating far fewer resources to support students.

Yet, the data upon which the administration is relying have huge gaps that make it next to impossible to ensure meaningful comparisons. If anything, the federal ratings system could even incentivize some institutions to enroll fewer at-risk students to boost their ratings, as some institutions have done to improve their standing in the U.S. News & World Report rankings, undermining college opportunity for the very students the ratings are meant to help.

If the ratings were to accurately reflect the degrees of difficulty that colleges and universities face, our institutions would fare well. Few if any comparable institutions can match historically black colleges' record for educating low-income, first-generation minority students.

Our five campuses collectively enroll more than 7,000 students and produce more than 1,000 graduates a year. Since 1986, we have produced more than 20,000 graduates. Nearly all of our students are low-income -- roughly 90 percent receive Pell Grants -- and most are the first in their family to go to college.

No other institutions of higher education have accomplished so much with so little for so long as historically black colleges and universities. Our graduates have gone on to contribute to South Carolina's economy and communities as civic and business leaders, scientists, doctors, lawyers, nurses, legislators, judges and teachers and in other professions.

The mother of South Carolina's civil rights movement, Modjeska Simkins, was educated at Benedict College. At Allen University, a quarter of the degrees are awarded in the science, technology, engineering and math fields, well above the national average. The first African-American chief justice in South Carolina, Earnest A. Finney, graduated from Claflin University. Pearl McNair, the mother of Ronald McNair, a physicist and NASA astronaut, attended Morris College.

When the U.S. Education Department releases the actual ratings for individual colleges this summer, we hope they will fulfill the pledges of President Obama and Secretary Arn Duncan to reward institutions that expand opportunities for disadvantaged students. But the draft blueprint released in December suggests that they will come up short.

The Obama administration, and more importantly disadvantaged students, would be better served by solutions that truly move the needle to enhance college access, affordability and attainment. Pell Grants, for example, now pay less than 30 percent of the cost of attending our institutions, the lowest share in the history of the program.

Resources and smart support — not just more regulation — have to be part of the solution to South Carolina's college completion crisis.

Drs. Swinton, Tisdale, Richardson, Sellers and Cole are the presidents, respectively, of Benedict College, Claflin University, Morris College, Voorhees College and Allen University. Contact them at,,, or

Source: The State Newspaper

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