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The HBCU Mission: A Fresh Look For a New Congress

The HBCU Mission: A Fresh Look For a New Congress

For organizations like the United Negro College Fund that are stakeholders in national education policy decisions, a new Congress provides an opportunity to take a fresh look at legislative missions and policy agendas. And when control of both the House and Senate shifts from one party to the other, as it has for the 110th Congress that convened last month, it’s an especially good time to take a fresh look at your own mission and to think about what federal help you can realistically hope for to get to where you need to go.

UNCF’s mission addresses an educational fact of life that will be all too familiar to readers of Diverse: More than 50 years after Brown v. Board of Education, and after all the progress that’s been made in creating educational opportunities for African-Americans, the Black-White educational attainment gap is not only still there, it’s getting wider.

UNCF’s mission is to close that gap by doing everything it can to help qualified minority students get the college education they need to start their professional careers. We’ll do that by raising funds to support the 39 private historically Black colleges and universities that make up UNCF, and by providing thousands of scholarships to help students across the country overcome the financial barriers that stand between them and the college degrees they want and need. We also serve as a national advocate for minority higher education through mass media — like our annual music-and-education special “An Evening of Stars” — and through taking part in Washington’s policy debates.

Unlike many other organizations, we don’t seek federal funding. But our schools and students are all affected by federal  policies. So we maintain an active presence in Washington, sometimes on our own, sometimes in collaboration with other groups committed to expanding the reach of higher education. And the measures we support are those that help the colleges and students that depend on us to fulfill their roles of teaching and learning.

We focus on two kinds of policy objectives:

Institutional Support
We don’t receive federal support, but our member colleges do. Some support comes from large, targeted programs like the “Strengthening Historically Black Colleges and Universities Program” under the Higher Education Act. Others are available to any college that can help achieve specific policy objectives in areas like public health, economic development and environmental improvement. Whatever the law or program, UNCF works both on Capitol Hill and with executive agencies to make sure that our colleges get the support they need to provide a 21st century education to their students.

The case we make to members of Congress and the Bush administration alike is not that our schools deserve support simply because Blacks attend them. In a nation and an economy in which members of minority groups will soon be in the majority, HBCUs have an established record of enrolling and graduating young Blacks — a better graduation rate, in fact, than the average Black graduation rate of many majority institutions. That makes HBCUs a good public investment on behalf of the next generation of teachers, scientists and engineers, and therefore, a good investment in the future of our country and economy.

Student Financial Assistance
The most important factor affecting students’ ability to attend and graduate from college is finances. More than half the students at our colleges have family incomes under $35,000, and more than
90 percent are eligible for financial aid. So increasing federally funded financial assistance to students will always be at the top of our Washington agenda.

In recent years, however, while the cost of going to college has risen steadily, the funding for Pell Grants, the federal low-income educational assistance program, has remained flat, drastically reducing these grants’ purchasing power. In addition, federal aid is coming increasingly in the form of loans, saddling those who can least afford them with large post-college debts.

So we will be looking, in the early moments of the 110th Congress, for opportunities for Congress to start reversing these trends, whether through increased funding for scholarship programs or through innovative new approaches to overcoming the financial barriers to college. And we have been heartened by the priority that appropriators in both houses have given to the need to increase Pell Grant funding.

The 110th Congress may be new, but the challenges faced by UNCF and other minority higher education advocates are not. UNCF will be using these first few months of the new Congress to meet new legislators, get reacquainted with longtime supporters and to start again the process of translating our mission into a legislative agenda, so we can live up to the ideal expressed in our motto, “A mind is a terrible thing to waste.”

Dr. Michael Lomax is the president and CEO of UNCF.

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