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All college students across the U.S. experienced the shock, but HBCU officials said their students were hit especially hard.

Student default rates were the reason behind the change, as student loan reforms pushed by the Obama administration cut out the banks as middlemen lenders. Some analysts say many parents and young adults going to college were choosing schools out of their price range, leading to reliance on student loans and resulting in debt that families could not repay.

“Adjustments to the PLUS loan was a response to the rising default rates, and tightening credit eligibility criteria were used to make sure students and parents weren’t borrowing more money than they could handle,” said Andrew Gillen, research director at Education Sector, an education-oriented think tank.

Abrupt implementation

Mr. Kantrowitz, who has written several studies on the changes in the PLUS program, said there is no evidence that this policy was targeted on repayment and default rates and that the abrupt implementation could give HBCU officials an avenue of attack in court.

“I think if someone would file suit against this, they would be immediately successful and ultimately successful,” Mr. Kantrowitz said. Department of Education officials “did not do things in the process in which they were supposed to be done. … [T]hey have to give the schools enough time so it’s not sprung on them, and they failed to comply with the calendar.”

Mr. Taylor said he and other leaders in the HBCU community wrote a letter to the Department of Education last summer expressing concerns about the new policy. He felt that because of recent economic struggles, determining loan eligibility through a five-year window would be unfair.

Howard University recognized the change in the PLUS policy ahead of time and was able to alert many students about the appeal process to reduce the impact of the new standards. University spokeswoman Kerry-Ann Hamilton said close to 600 students were approved for both fall and spring semesters, 92 percent of all applicants.

Mr. Taylor said federal officials promised to “revisit” the new standards in light of their impact on historically minority schools.

“Since then, there has been no change in the interpretation, and the impact on our schools are as profound, if not more profound, than last year,” he said.