EXCLUSIVE: Historically Black colleges and universities are, for the first time, a focus for presidential candidates
HBCUs are, for the first time, a front-and-center issue in the presidential campaign.
President Donald Trump has spoken often of the institutions, particularly about the historic levels of funding they have seen since he has taken office. And Democratic nominee Joe Biden’s campaign recently unveiled a $70 billion plan outlining their policy priorities as it relates to these institutions.
“Historically Black colleges and universities are so important to our long-term goals(as a nation),” said Vince Evans, a political director for the Biden-Harris campaign and himself a graduate of Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University in Tallahassee (FAMU).
“On almost every challenge in the country that you can think of today, historically Black colleges and universities have and can lead on them, in large part because of the research and development that they’re doing.”
A 2017 report commissioned by the United Negro College Fund showed historically Black colleges and universities contribute $14.8 billion in annual economic impact, and though the institutions collectively represent only 3% of all higher education institutions, they account for 13% of all bachelor’s degrees conferred to Black students in the U.S.
Data show a correlation between greater educational attainment and a tendency to vote Democrat, and Black women remain the most reliably Democratic voting bloc.
This may explain the heavy fourth-quarter pitch the Trump administration has made to woo Black men, between the Platinum Plan the Trump campaign announced in partnership with rapper and actor Ice Cube to increasingly touting the funding increases for HBCUs over the last four years.
While Trump has spoken little of what he will do for the institutions if re-elected, focusing instead on past victories, like increased funding and the fact that the administration sent over 500,000 free COVID-19 tests to the institutions, the Biden camp is promising to push investments in infrastructure and increased funding for Pell grants and student debt forgiveness.
Since 2018, HBCUs have received over $800 million in funding, both via direct appropriations like through the Title III Strengthening HBCUs program, and through capital loan forgiveness for HBCUs affected by Hurricane Katrina and other natural disasters.
But while it is true Trump signed these bills into law, the credit for this funding increase actually belongs to Congress, and particularly the efforts of Rep. Alma Adams (D-NC), who came into Congress as a single-issue congresswoman and made the establishment of a bipartisan HBCU caucus her first priority.
Adams, a double graduate of North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University and a former professor at Bennett College, has made it a priority to ask about the implications on and for HBCUs in every discussion of every bill that has come up, said UNCF Vice President of Public Policy and Government Affairs Lodriguez Murray.
“The fact that we got a specific carve-out for HBCUs in the CARES act, and just three months prior to that got the Futures Act passed as a standalone piece of legislation and got it passed in both houses in one day — those are the kinds of things that my predecessors a generation ago would have never believed. They’re unheard of for us,” Murray said.
In addition to Adams’ contributions, both on making sure HBCUs are a part of every conversation and working fervently to build bipartisan support among legislators with HBCUs in their districts, Murray said the impact of having three Black senators — an historic high — also played a huge part in advancing the HBCU cause in Congress.
Evans said Biden, if elected, is dedicated to working with Congress to make sure the investment in HBCUs remains strong. “It is not a deficit of talent, it’s a deficit of opportunity and resources, and so we’ve got to make sure that these laboratories of education have the same resources as institutions across the country,” he said.
Murray said while he wouldn’t give Trump credit directly for the funding increases, he does think the attention this president has put on the institutions has been invaluable. “What I give him credit for is the use of the bully pulpit of the presidency to talk about HBCUs,” he said.
“Presidents and vice presidents usually talk about HBCUs when they’re on a campus of an HBCU. This president talks about HBCUs no matter where he goes. And I believe there are folks who know what that acronym means who never knew it before.”
Murray said he expects that no matter who is elected, this continued attention on HBCUs will continue.
“Now that this president uses his bully pulpit to talk about HBCUs, we have every expectation that every president from now on will do the same thing. We can no longer be a set of institutions that you talk to only at commencement time,” he said.
“We want our needs addressed and our students’ needs addressed consistently, and we expect a constant engagement. We are now accustomed to a new level of exposure, and we intend to keep that and continue to utilize it to benefit the students,” no matter who wins on Tuesday, Murray added.
It helps to have a nominee for vice president who is a proud graduate of Howard University, and a number of staff members, like Evans, who are also HBCU alumni, though Murray worries about the impact of the loss of Harris as an advocate for the institutions in the Senate. He points to Georgia’s Senate race, where Morehouse College alumnus Raphael Warnock is vying to be only the third HBCU graduate in the Senate, as another key race to watch.
Clark Atlanta University President George T. French, Jr. said he appreciates that this means there are people “who don’t question the value proposition of HBCUs,” and that makes a huge difference when trying to advance policy for the institutions, particularly as vital pieces of a higher education landscape working to advance the national security imperatives.
“For higher education in general — to realize that we are falling behind at a steady pace in keeping up with higher education internationally, specifically in the STEM disciplines, and if the Federal government does not pay attention and provide more resources to higher ed overall, then we’ll continue to fall behind,” said French. “We’re talking about everyday scientific discoveries that include the defense of our nation, as well as the convenience of how we live within our households.”
Evans emphasized the importance of supporting HBCUs in their capacity for research and development, as much as supporting them through infrastructure building, and supporting their students and graduates — 75% of whom are Pell grant eligible, and 81% of whom take out some sort of student loan — through increases to those student programs and free tuition proposals.
“You want to make sure that you have a team of folks at your institutions, that they have the opportunity to compete and they are actually receiving the dollars. They’re applying, but they’re not receiving the same level of interest that their peer institutions are receiving. And so the Biden-Harris administration would focus specifically in federal agencies to make sure that playing field is level … so folks know that hbcus can compete at the same level,” Evans said.
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