Morgan State University is trying to raise $300,000 in donations by the end of the month to give 300 undergraduates emergency scholarships — the result of tighter lending standards that have hit historically black colleges and universities particularly hard.
The universities blame changes to the Parent PLUS Loans, which allow holders to borrow the full cost of tuition, fees and living expenses. More loans were denied after credit history requirements were made stricter in late 2011.
Those institutions disproportionately serve a low-income population that's less likely to pass the revised credit check, educators and politicians said. Enrollments are expected to drop because of it, along with graduation rates.
The Parent PLUS Loan approval rate at Morgan has dropped 44 percent from last year, Wilson told the university's Board of Regents this week, contributing to an expected 3 percent decrease — 204 students — in undergraduate enrollment there this fall.
Morgan President David Wilson made a last-minute plea to alumni in a letter posted on Morgan's website. The $1,000 scholarships would be for the fall semester.
"Reluctant as we were to come to you, we know that you would not want to see worthy students go without the resources they need to continue their education," Wilson wrote.
Wilson and the presidents of 10 other historically black institutions — including Coppin State and Bowie State universities in Maryland — sent a letter to President Barack Obama last week asking that the changes be reversed because they are having a "devastating impact." Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, a Baltimore Democrat, delivered the letter.
Also, the Congressional Black Caucus has called on the U.S. Department of Education to "immediately suspend use of the new 'adverse credit' criteria." The caucus contends that the changes resulted in nearly $150 million in loans not being extended for 128,000 students at historically black institutions.
"The rejection rate for students applying for Parent PLUS Loans has nearly doubled," caucus Chairwoman Marcia L. Fudge said in a statement. "Students approved for a Parent PLUS Loan one year have been rejected the next year with no significant change in their family's financial status and with little clarity on why they are no longer eligible."
A Department of Education spokesman said officials have been meeting with university presidents as recently as this week to develop "an amicable agreement that works for both" the schools and the federal agency.
In November 2011, the eligibility portion of the PLUS Loan program was altered to deny those who, within the past five years, had delinquent accounts older than 90 days that were either referred to a collection agency or deemed uncollectable and written off.
The two changes were made to bring PLUS Loans in line with another federal loan program and to help ensure "that families with federal student loans do not face financial ruin resulting from taking on debt beyond what they can afford," according to a Department of Education information sheet prepared to address concerns.
The school presidents contend in their letter to Obama that the modifications were made without public comment, and they weren't communicated to colleges, to the school presidents.
"Everybody was totally caught off guard," said Cassandra M. Robinson, a spokeswoman for Bowie State University.
This year, Bowie, which charges about $7,000 in tuition and fees for in-state undergraduate students, and $17,500 for out-of-state undergraduates, set aside $190,000 in "gap funding" to help denied families with a grant of up to $1,500.
Robinson said there was a "significant drop" in PLUS Loan approval ratings, but she could not provide data.
"It's a significant problem," Robinson said. "We're dealing with a lot of families that have counted on these loans to help finance their children's educations."
Mark Kantrowitz, a Las Vegas-based education consultant, said he sees no reason for changes to the loan program, which already has one of the lowest default rates.
"It denies loans to people who have the same likelihood of defaults," Kantrowitz said. "The change that they made had the effect of doubling the denial rate for the PLUS Loans, which causes all sorts of problems."
The Education Department said Parent PLUS Loan approval rates had been declining for several years but that the changes resulted in a "more significant decrease." A report in the Chronicle of Higher Education last year based on federal statistics showed a steady increase in the number of Parent PLUS Loan recipients from 2009 through 2011, however, making the drop-off in 2012 appear all the more stark.
The Education Department declined to provide any data regarding the loans.
After denials increased in 2012, the department began allowing families who were previously approved or had minimal debt to appeal the rejections. It also conducted several outreach campaigns to educate the public and institutions about the changes, and now provides weekly reports to schools about PLUS applicants.
According to the Department of Education, parents have a strong likelihood of being approved if they ask for a reconsideration — though some schools, including Morgan, said they aren't seeing that — and if denied, become eligible to apply for unsubsidized loans that have lower interest rates. Those loans are typically capped at smaller amounts.
Coppin State University and the University of Maryland Eastern Shore — the state's two other historically black institutions, in addition to Morgan and Bowie — said they were still assessing the impact of the PLUS Loan changes.
Coppin spokeswoman Tiffany Jones said the school expects to be down by about 100 to 150 students this fall, a 3 percent to 4 percent drop, but it wasn't clear what, if any, role the PLUS Loans played.
Last year, at least 67 percent of the 408 Parent PLUS Loan applicants from Coppin were denied, according to preliminary figures Jones provided. But she couldn't say how that compared to the rate in 2011. The Baltimore-based school charges $5,900 for in-state undergraduates, and $10,800 for out-of-state.
Anthony Jenkins, the vice president of student affairs and enrollment management at the University of Maryland, Eastern Shore, also said he expects enrollment numbers to be down this fall, but more so because the school is tightening its academic standards.
Still, he called the loan changes a "very important issue" that the higher education community needs to discuss. The Eastern Shore school charges $7,000 for in-state undergraduates and $15,500 for out-of-state undergrads.
In an interview, Morgan's Wilson said he first became aware of the loan program changes last year, when the school experienced a small decline in enrollment. Similar drops were occurring at other traditionally black schools, and administrators determined that the loan program was to blame.
This year, the enrollment decline worsened at Morgan, which charges in-state undergraduates $7,200 per year and out-of-state undergraduates $16,600. Wilson blamed the bulk of it on rejected Parent PLUS Loans and reached out to alumni to stem the departures.
"We have several hundred students who are thirsting for a college degree, and the only thing holding them back is the financial wherewithal to get it," Wilson said. "I think the country will be in a bad place if we end up where college is only available for those who can afford to pay for it. I do not think that is a good place for the city of Baltimore, the state of Maryland and for the nation to be."
As of Wednesday, $23,500 had been raised, a Morgan spokesman said.
By the numbers
$150 million: The amount of denied Parent PLUS Loans for those attending historically black institutions
128,000: The number of students at those institutions whose parents were denied Parent PLUS Loans
SOURCE: Congressional Black Caucus