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Omnibus Bill a Win for HBCUs, Minority Institutions

Heading into the holiday break, Congress passed a $1.1 trillion omnibus bill to avert a government shutdown through September 30, 2016. The bill included significant increases in Title III funding and increases in Pell grant appropriations and other programs specifically geared towards strengthening historically Black colleges and universities and other minority institutions.

Among the appropriations listed in the mega-bill is a $22 million increase in Title III funding ― which is specifically designated for the strengthening of HBCUs from the Department of Education, and several increases to critical research programs administered by other agencies.

Edith Bartley, vice president of government affairs for the Thurgood Marshall College Fund, said the increases are “really good for the [HBCU] community, particularly in an election year, when we don’t know what will happen” with funding next year.

“We always want to emphasize that there are other accounts across the federal government that are set up for HBCUs outside of the Department of Education, and we saw” promising increases in some of those other appropriations lines, Bartley said.

“We applaud Congress for making increases to those programs, when we’ve seen [proposed] budgets that have proposed cuts to those programs,” she added.

National Association for Equal Opportunity in Higher Education President and CEO Lezli Baskerville said the budget compromises represent “bipartisan support for HBCU and PBI funding in the bill, reminiscent of the bipartisan support HBCUs received in the United States Congress from 1965 until very recent years,” for which she is “especially appreciative.”

But Baskerville said the increases don’t go far enough.

“The increases in support for HBCUs and PBIs are important steps toward freeing these institutions to plan and budget for the next nine months, to build on core curricula, innovative academic, student support, teaching and learning, outcome measurement, and community engagement initiatives,” she said. “They are inadequate, however, to move the needle from inequality in higher education funding toward equitable funding.”

“HBCUs will only receive a fair share of American tax dollars when congressional and state appropriations reflect the centrality of HBCUs and PBIs to the realization of important American goals: education, economic, entrepreneurial, ecumenical, security and justice goals, to name a few,” added Baskerville.

But Bartley said increases in federal student aid programs like Pell and TRIO will be critical for the families of the students HBCUs traditionally serve, and will have an indirectly positive impact on the institutions.

“There are so many families in this country that need financial aid,” Bartley said. “I think that one of the main impacts on a student’s ability to enter into college … is finances,” she continued, adding that increasing student aid allocations, coupled with increasing consumer information about borrowing and transparency around financial aid options will ultimately be good for families of color.

Still, most agree that the move, which represents the first increase in Title III funding since the recession hit in 2010, is overall positive for historically Black and other minority institutions.

“An important strategy in closing the college attainment gap between minority and low-income students and their more advantaged peers is to strengthen the capacity of HBCUs, which are a ‘best buy’ in American higher education,” said United Negro College Fund President Michael Lomax in a statement. “This much needed federal investment in HBCUs recognizes that these institutions are an important part of our national commitment to ensure that every student has a shot at earning a college degree.”

The bill has received sharp criticism from Congressional Black Caucus and Hispanic Caucus members for compromises on tax extenders and what they perceive as the outright ignoring of some other proposals they believe will mean a rough road for families of color. But HBCU advocates in Washington so far are not expressing similar concerns that these provisions will circle to impact the institutions by making it more difficult for families to afford college. Instead, they are optimistic that the funding increases will allow HBCUs to strengthen their capacity to serve all students.

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