HBCU President: Students Hurt By Federal Loan Policy

Tighter lending standards for certain student loans have left many people looking for other ways to pay for school. Critics say historically black colleges and universities are hit particularly hard. Host Michel Martin speaks with David Wilson, President of Morgan State University, about the situation.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

We've been talking a lot about education this week, but the president of Morgan State University in Baltimore says welcome week was a little quieter than usual this year. President David Wilson says some students are being forced out of school because of new requirements for certain loans. He says that it's a particularly significant problem at historically black colleges and universities around the country. And the president of Morgan State University, David Wilson, is with us now. Welcome back Mr. President, thank you so much for speaking with us once again.

DAVID WILSON: Thank you, Michel. And thank you for having me.

MARTIN: So what are these loans? Tell us about them.

WILSON: Well, the Parent PLUS loans are loans that typically are taken out by parents while their children are in college to help them defray the cost of a college education. And so the parents actually apply for the loans and the parents actually are responsible for repaying them.

MARTIN: And we understand that the administration tightened the credit standards for approving these loans, and as a consequence of that - this happened in 2011, you know, I believe - and that the denial rate shot up. At your institution I understand that the approval rate declined by what? Is it 44 percent - nearly 50 percent, is that right?

WILSON: Well, actually, yeah. It declined by more than 50 percent, when you look at the numbers that we have in place this year.

MARTIN: And what is in the effect at the school? I mean, you predicted over the summer that hundreds of students might not be able to return because of this. In fact, you launched an emergency fundraising drive to try to bridge the gap. Did that occur? Were students unable to return and were your fundraising efforts successful?

WILSON: You know, I just got an update on this on Monday morning at our cabinet meeting. And we are expecting a shortfall of about 300 to 350 undergraduate students this fall over last year. And what that really means, Michel, is that, this year we had roughly, oh, 1,100 parents who actually applied for the Parent PLUS loan program. And we had about 400 of them who were actually approved, and over 700 who were denied.

And the Department of Education, Secretary Duncan, did put in place a process for some of those parents who were denied to be reconsidered. And so you had to go through a process of determining which ones were eligible to be reconsidered. And so we had about, oh, a half of those who were denied to be reconsidered. And on the reconsideration, it's about a 94 percent approval rating, but that's still a far cry from where we end up. So overall...

MARTIN: And school's already started. Am I right?

WILSON: Yes...

MARTIN: School's already started.

WILSON: ...School's already started, and I'm still getting e-mails from some students who have just kind of shown up anyway hoping that something will happen before - what we have here at Morgan's, you know, what we call a drop-dead date, which means that we could carry students for a couple of weeks or so, but at that particular point, if they don't have the dollars, they would unfortunately have to go home.

MARTIN: Earlier this week, we spoke with Education Secretary Arne Duncan and I asked him about this. And this is what he had to say. This is just a portion of our conversation. I'll just play a short clip from our conversation. Here it is.

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SECRETARY OF EDUCATION ARNE DUNCAN: They don't have access to the Parent PLUS loan. There are other grants that they are automatically have access to. And in fact, those grants have gone up. So we want to make sure we're doing the right thing there. But again, we don't want folks to be buried in debt that they can't pay back.

MARTIN: What about that?

WILSON: Well, you know, we - I think all of us are concerned about the cost of higher education across the country. We here at Morgan have been concerned about that. We have put in place initiatives to try to make that as efficient as possible. But on the other hand, you know, I'm a university president that actually grew up in extremely penurious conditions. My parents made, whatever, $250 a week, and there was no way that I would have gone to Tuskegee and I would have gone to Harvard if they had not gone in debt to do that. And I don't think they would regret that one bit, and certainly I would not.

And so when you're coming from these limited-resource families and you just simply don't have the money to write a check to a college or university, how else do you expect students who just don't have the money to experience the magic of education?

So on the one hand, I am concerned, of course, about large amounts of debt that are being accumulated in order to receive a college education. But on the other hand, what do we do as a nation if we have a large group of people in that category who cannot afford to go to college? Now the administration has been good about increasing the Pell Grant program, and I really, really applaud the president and the secretary for doing that, but it's not enough.

MARTIN: Well, Mark Kantrowitz is a Las Vegas-based education consultant who has a particular focus on student loans and student aid. He said in an interview that he sees no reason for changes to the loan program 'cause it already has one of the lowest default rates of any of these programs.

On the other hand, there are some who say that the administration shouldn't be, or the government should not be in the position of giving money to people who may not be able to pay it back, and that a heightened concern is appropriate in these very difficult budgetary times. I mean, so what do you say about that?

WILSON: Well, we have looked at the same study. And so there is no evidence, from our perspective, to show that the parents who traditionally have gotten the loans to send their sons and daughters to Morgan are defaulting on those loans at any rate that would be higher than parents who've gotten loans to, in some instances, send their sons and daughters to Harvard and Yale.

And so the evidence that has been put before us is simply not compelling enough to show that the change in this program is designed to ensure that those parents who, quote-unquote, cannot afford to pay the loans back are defaulting at a rate that is higher than any other group.

MARTIN: Well, President Wilson, you're speaking about this in very temperate terms, which is, you know, befitting a university president. But other people have been much more critical. In fact, The Washington Post columnist Courtland Milloy writing about this said that this was patronizing.

And he found it particularly hypocritical coming in the administration of our first African-American president who himself and his wife certainly went to school using student loans. And he finds it - he's, you know, appalled by this. And I wonder if that's a general feeling among university presidents, particularly those at the HBCUs. I want to mention that 11 university presidents sent a letter to the president asking him to, you know, reverse this. What do you say to that?

WILSON: I think, you know, for the most part, we really do understand the position of the administration with regard to having parents to take on an increasingly higher level of debt. We understand that. But at the same time, I think that those decisions certainly need to be made by the parents themselves. And so how do you say to a parent, you know, I really want little Johnny and little Susie to experience what you have experienced, in terms of a college education and a college degree, and the only way that I can get them to do that is for me to take out this $5,000 loan that they can't do that. And I do have some problems with that because I think if this had been in place, as I said earlier, Michel, when I was attempting to go to college, I would not have ever finished undergraduate school.

MARTIN: And you wouldn't be sitting here talking to me.

WILSON: I would not be sitting here talking to you as president of one of the best universities in the country.

MARTIN: Why has this hit the HBCUs so hard, at least, to the point that these are the groups which you're actually talking about. And it may be that the effects are broader than we know. But these are the groups that have kind of spearheaded the request to have this revisited. Why is that?

WILSON: I think a part of the reason, certainly, is that we do enroll a larger number of students who are coming from first generation - who are first-generation college-going students, who are coming from households where the average income is kind of in that twixt, in-between level. So therefore, in order for them to come to college, their parents would have to take out these loans.

As opposed to students who are going to institutions where, perhaps, the average family income may be $175 - $200,000 a year. The parents have been thinking about college for 15, 20 years and they have set aside certain funds to do that. Unfortunately, within families, within many of our communities, that is not the case, because many of those families are working so hard just to make ends meet on a daily basis.

MARTIN: David Wilson is the president of Morgan State University. That's an historically black university in Baltimore. He was kind enough to join us from member station WEAA in Baltimore. President Wilson, please keep us posted. Thank you so much for speaking with us today.

WILSON: Thank you for having me, Michel.

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