Black On Campus
Higher Education and the African American Experience

Is Obama Good for Black Higher Education?

December 22nd, 2007 by Ajuan Mance

Sen. Barack Obama receiving an honorary doctorate from historically Black Xavier University in New Orleans

If I had to come up with a single phrase to characterize Barack Obama’s position on Black higher education, it would be social justice/anti-poverty.

Higher education is rarely a major issue in presidential campaigns, largely because the 18 to 24 set does not vote in the numbers that other constituencies do. Hence the stampede on the part of candidates eager to weigh in on medicare, even as they virtually ignore issues like financial aid and standardized college admission tests.

Still, Barack Obama’s website does state an official stance on this subject; and recent comments during an interview with George Stephanopoulos lend clarity to his beliefs surrounding affirmative action.

Obama’s official position on higher education, stated on his campaign website, steers clear of any mention of affirmative action. He is, after all, attempting to gain the support of a broad cross section of Americans, and not just Black people. Still, his policy statement on higher ed advocates an expansion of opportunity that would benefit African Americans and other marginalized groups, disporportionately.

Obama’s higher ed policy emphasizes increases opportunity to poor and working class youth and their families, with an emphasis on making college more affordable for a wider range of Americans. His position statement advocates, “increasing the maximum Pell Grant from the existing limit of $4,050 to a new maximum of $5,100,” and it reminds visitors that, “Senator Obama has worked in a bipartisan way on the Senate HELP Committee to propose an increase in the Pell Grant to $5,400 over the next few years.”

His policy also seizes upon one of the most widely reported on innovations in college financial aid policy (and an approach that I strongly support), the replacement of college loan aid with grant aid. Obama would like to see more colleges shift from the FFEL loan program to less costly Direct Student Loan program, and then to reinvest the resulting savings in scholarship aid to needy undergraduates. His policy statement on this subject reminds visitors that, “Barack Obama cosponsored Senator Kennedy’s Student Debt Relief Act, which encourages colleges to participate in the Direct Loan program and use the savings to invest in grant aid to students.”

Like his official position statements on higher education policy, Obama’s unofficial — but on-the-record — comments about affirmative action echo the emphasis on widening access to post-secondary education in order to provide opportunity to more young people from poor and working-class families.

In a recent interview with George Stephanopoulos, Obama agreed with the assertion that the candidate is a “strong supporter of affirmative action.” Obama’s response to Stephanopoulos’s question about whether the candidate’s daughters — economically privileged and with highly educated parents — should benefit from affirmative action invoked a concept rarely discussed on television news, the notion of intersectionality/multiple identities. Here’s an excerpt from their exchange on this subject:

Stephanopoulos: And you’re a constitutional law professor so let’s go back in the classroom…..I’m your student. I say Professor, you and your wife went to Harvard Law School. Got plenty of money, you’re running for president. Why should your daughters when they go to college get affirmative action?

Obama: Well, first of all, I think that my daughters should probably be treated by any admissions officer as folks who are pretty advantaged, and I think that there’s nothing wrong with us taking that into account as we consider admissions policies at universities. I think that we should take into account white kids who have been disadvantaged and have grown up in poverty and shown themselves to have what it takes to succeed. So I don’t think those concepts are mutually exclusive. I think what we can say is that in our society race and class still intersect, that there are a lot of African American kids who are still struggling, that even those who are in the middle class may be first generation as opposed to fifth or sixth generation college attendees, and that we all have an interest in bringing as many people together to help build this country. — as published on Washington Monthly’s Political Animal blog

In responding to Stephanopoulos, Obama re-presents affirmative action  as a net gain for America, as opposed to its usually portrayal as a net loss for white people and Asian Americans. In the above statement, affirmative action becomes less a racialized entitlement than a process by which admission officers take into account the disadvantages that have shaped an applicant’s march toward college education, whether that disadvantage race-based or class-based, but also in those cases in which a student’s perceived privilege in one area intersects with his or her disadvantage in another.

Of course, Obama did not invent this approach to college admissions. Indeed, in providing this answer to Stephanopoulos he is truly showing the imprint of his Ivy League pedigree, in that he is simply articulating the admission process already at work on many highly selective campuses. The big secret of private, selective college admission is that working class and poor white applicants do receive special consideration, and affluent Black children of highly-educated parents are evaluated in a process that takes into account both their racial marginalization and their economic privilege.

So, back to the question posed in the title of this post: Is Obama Good for Black Higher Education? I supposed that the best way to answer this question would be to return to the language of net gain and net loss. If Obama’s vision of affirmative action is employed across the board, at public and private selective institutions, and if Obama’s policies on financial aid are put into practice, African Americans and other marginalized ethnic and class groups would benefit. In other words, Black people would experience a net gain in opportunity.

Still, his vision of higher education opportunity offers nothing to address many of the isses that are specific to Black people’s pursuit of post-secondary degrees. Obama fails to address the most dramatic issues effecting African Americans, the disappearance of the descendants of U.S. Black slaves from selective college campuses (and, for that matter, from M.D. and Ph.D. programs, as well), the growing gender gap between Black men and women on U.S. campuses, and the financial crises that jeopardize way too many HBCUs.

I do not, however, completely fault Obama for failing to address these issues. Indeed, a major reason his opinions on these topics have not been widely circulated is because he has not been asked. Why? Because few of the people asking questions of the candidates and getting official, on-the-record statements from them are people of African descent.

Posted by Ajuan Mance

Posted in Affirmative Action, Black Students, Current Events, Financial Aid, Higher Education, Obama, race

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