Black College Leaders Briefed on Historic Health Care, Education Legislation

WASHINGTON – House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, and other congressional leaders addressed college presidents, administrators and students representing the nation’s historically Black colleges and universities and other predominantly Black schools just hours before Democratic leaders released a bill Thursday that combined highly sought education funding and student loan reform with historic legislation that aims to revamp health care.

 “You come here at a really crucial time in history,” Pelosi told delegates attending the 36th annual meeting of the National Association for Equal Opportunity in Higher Education (NAFEO), as she described components of the “Healthcare and Education Affordability Reconciliation Act of 2010,” a bill that packages initiatives in the Student Aid and Fiscal Responsibility Act (SAFRA) with health care reform initiatives that have been the focus of intense debate on and off the Hill over the past year.

“Education and health care have an affinity,” Pelosi said. “They go together. That is why we are taking this course.”

 In the Healthcare and Education Affordability Reconciliation Act of 2010, SAFRA provisions appear under “Title 2: Education and Health.” The bill provides $36 billion to increase student Pell Grants over a 10-year period. Under the legislation, the maximum Pell Grant would increase from $5,550 in 2010 to $5,975 by 2017. The bill includes $2.5 billion in funding for historically Black colleges and universities and minority-serving institutions.

 Community colleges would get $2 billion in competitive grants to develop or improve educational and career training programs. The community college provision is one of the few provisions remaining from President Obama’s $12 billion American Graduation Initiative earmarked for two-year public colleges. The bill also would provide $750 million in formula grants to states to improve college access and completion rates.

 A vote on the legislation is set for this weekend.

 “Sunday when we cast this historic vote to make quality health care available to everybody, we will also be casting a vote to increase Pell Grants,” Majority Whip James Clyburn told the group of college presidents, students and congressional aides. NAFEO members include the education stakeholders representing HBCUs and educational institutions that primarily serve African-American students.

 Clyburn described the packaging of the SAFRA provisions with health care reform legislation as a stroke of political genius on the part of Pelosi.

 “There isn’t anyone who works as hard as [Pelosi] to get the vision done. She knew there would be forces looking for a way to stop health care and continue to underfund education,” Clyburn said. “This vote will significantly increase support for historically Black colleges and universities—and I’m talking about in the billions of dollars.”

 In selling the merger of education funding and student loan reform into one bill, Pelosi told NAFEO conference attendees that the legislation is about opportunity in terms of education and investments that train young people for college, the workplace and entrepreneurism.

 “This will be transformational,” Pelosi said. “It is about making the American people healthier and fiscally and financially sound. It will enable us to provide opportunity for more people in our economy. … Think of an economy where young people could get the education they need, come out of school and be able to, if they wanted to, be self-employed—if they are an artist, a musician, a cameraman, a writer,” Pelosi said. “They can start their own business without the worry of having no health insurance.”

 In addition to hearing from Pelosi and Clyburn, Senate Majority leader Harry Reid, Sen. Mary Landrieu, Sen. Thad Cochran, Rep. Danny K. Davis, Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, and Rep. John Conyers Jr. took time to address the NAFEO conference attendees.

 NAFEO leaders said they favored merging the aims of health care reform and increasing investment in minority-serving schools but expressed concern that Congress not lose sight of the needs of HBCUs and other predominantly Black institutions during the health care debate.

 “As they move forward on health care, we don’t want any tradeoffs in education,” NAFEO president Dr. Lezli Baskerville said.

 In addition to hearing from congressional leaders about health care and education legislation, NAFEO members pressed for legislative funding requests under the Higher Education Act’s Title III for fiscal year 2011, including:

  • $282 million for strengthening Historically Black Colleges and Universities
  • $18.75 million for strengthening Predominantly Black Institutions
  • $67 million for strengthening HBCU graduate programs
  • $25 million for Endowment Challenge Grants
  • $21 million for HBCU capital financing

 “Title IIIB programs will continue to help HBCUs meet challenges and provide vital services to their communities,” said Sylvia Thomas, president of the National Association of Title III Administrators, at the NAFEO congressional summit.