For nearly 50 years, the National Association for Equal Opportunity in Higher Education (NAFEO) has served as the overarching advocate for all 105 historically Black colleges and universities and 91 predominantly Black institutions (PBIs), working behind the scenes to ensure its member institutions receive their share of federal and state funding and contract opportunities. But as NAFEO’s 50th anniversary approaches, some people — including its board members — say it is time for the organization to get a facelift because a strong, national advocate for HBCUs is needed now more than ever.
“If NAFEO didn’t exist today, it would have to be created,” says Dr. Leonard Haynes III, senior director of institutional services at the U.S. Department of Education. “When it comes to higher education policy at the federal level, an advocate’s voice is important. Absent that, you don’t get the attention the community deserves.”
NAFEO’s member institutions certainly need attention. Their leaders know that effective advocacy can attract billions in public grants, program funds and contracts for their institutions. But getting and keeping policymakers’ attention in today’s environment isn’t easy.
Competition in the advocacy arena is stiff. NAFEO shares the landscape with several highly motivated peer associations that are all using strategic communication to push their agendas — a tactic NAFEO falls short on. With its outdated website, limited social media capacity and occasional troubles communicating about events, NAFEO is at a competitive disadvantage.
“NAFEO needs to put the resources into having a more robust advocacy agenda,” says Anita Estell, a lawyer and longtime HBCU advocate with the Polsinelli firm in Washington, D.C. “The model of advocacy they’re using is dated. We are in a new environment, and it requires new tools.”
In today’s environment, HBCU advocates must push the idea that these institutions are not obsolete. Earl Richardson, former president of Morgan State University who remains an active champion of NAFEO, notes some HBCU skeptics on Capitol Hill are African-American. These doubters often lack personal experience with Black institutions and, unless they have HBCUs or PBIs in their district, they may have no political motivation to support them. Richardson says a stronger NAFEO could help educate these and other Americans about the contributions HBCUs and PBIs are making to the nation’s overall education goals.
Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., a Howard University graduate and reliable HBCU champion on Capitol Hill, agrees. “I believe that there is an urgent need to address reckless policies like the sequester that pose a very real and devastating threat to the longevity and legacies of our great schools,” he says. “We owe it to our children, their children and future generations to do all we can to ensure that our HBCUs and PBIs not only survive, but thrive.”
NAFEO President and CEO Lezli Baskerville has spent most of her career explaining the value of HBCUs to policymakers, elected officials and other policy shapers in Washington. It concerns her that so many simply don’t appreciate what HBCUs are about.
Ernest McNealey, NAFEO chairman and president of Stillman College, says NAFEO must do a better job of telling its own story, especially to new HBCU/PBI presidents.
“Much of the really important work that Lezli has been getting done gets lost because the story is not told,” McNealey says. “… [As board members], we have to assist her in figuring out how to balance that excellent work and the more mundane things that an organization must have to reach its full potential.”
The high price of a low profile
Last fall, as Clark Atlanta University commenced enrollment for the 2012-13 year, the financial-aid packages for hundreds of students they’d admitted were mysteriously coming up short. At first, administrators couldn’t figure out why.
With some digging, it became apparent that the Parent PLUS loan program was the source of Clark Atlanta’s troubles. The U.S. Department of Education had tightened the loan program’s qualifications earlier that year without alerting the nation’s colleges and universities. Parents whose credit worthiness had been clobbered by the recession were now being rejected by the PLUS program. Clark Atlanta’s PLUS loan approval rate plummeted from 75 percent the year before to 25 percent.
“For us, that was an instant loss of 500 students,” says Clark Atlanta President Carlton Brown. “And that’s an $8 million hit to the budget.”
Clark Atlanta’s experience was not unique. The PLUS loan situation blindsided college administrators across the country, with private HBCUs among those seriously hurt. Within days of discovering the problem, NAFEO, the United Negro College Fund and Hampton University sent a joint letter to Education Secretary Arne Duncan detailing the “crippling” impact the PLUS program changes were having on their institutions. The Department of Education has since made efforts to work with PLUS applicants who were rejected, which has helped some students to enroll as planned, but thousands could not, and HBCUs are still trying to recover.
Brown says the PLUS situation illustrates why a strong NAFEO that communicates effectively is so important, as NAFEO members expect timely information about federal policy changes.
But McNealey quickly dismisses that NAFEO was obligated to advise members about the PLUS situation before enrollment season began, though he agrees a stronger communication apparatus might have helped once the problem was discovered. Advance notice wasn’t possible because the Department of Education didn’t want the information released before the change was finalized. Such recklessness from bureaucrats, he says, underscores Baskerville’s call for better communication with “policy shapers” who don’t always understand the impact their actions can have on NAFEO institutions.
Like most organizations that have been around for awhile, NAFEO has seen high and low times. “When I came to NAFEO, active membership was around 30 percent,” Baskerville says. At the time, the organization also had more than 50 employees. Under her leadership, active membership eventually reached a high of 90 percent, she says. But lingering budget difficulties led to staff downsizing and NAFEO struggled to keep members apprised of legislative and policy developments in Washington.
Today, Baskerville is optimistic about the future. In the past year, the association has helped reduce federal funding cuts to HBCUs and minority-serving organizations from 8 percent to 5 percent. It successfully advocated for the new White House Initiative for Educational Excellence in Education and collaborates with UNCF, the Thurgood Marshall College Fund and the Alliance with Equity in Higher Education to advance the interests of its members. Luminia, Kellogg and Walmart are now among NAFEO’s foundation supporters, and it continues to help members secure much-needed federal funding, especially for STEM initiatives and research.
This summer, the association will add a new communications director and a social media specialist to its small staff, boosting the number of employees to 11. Baskerville also aims to help members improve their capacity to align their institutional messages with national priorities.
Haynes adds that NAFEO members must remember that communication is a two-way street. “The members need to be more forthcoming about what their expectations are for their organization. … They can agree to disagree, but all of them need to be on the same page.”
According to McNealey, NAFEO’s new 15-member board, which will be impaneled this summer and represent a cross-section of the HBCU/PBI community, is committed to the new communication agenda and to collaboration.
“I certainly think that, given the challenges that have emanated from Washington, that they will be very attentive and pick up the great question of what it is a fabled, old organization like NAFEO should be doing in the years ahead,” he says.