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Biden Stresses Importance of HBCUs’ Role in Economy, Addresses Concerns

Vice President Joe Biden spoke Tuesday morning at the HBCU Week Conference. He ascended the podium to shouts of, “Run Joe Run!,” but the vice president, who is rumored to be contemplating a third run for the presidency, kept his remarks focused on the importance of HBCUs in solving the country’s economic problems.

Biden spoke of his personal connection to the HBCU community, attributing his political success to volunteers from Delaware State University when he was first running for the Senate. His praise for HBCUs went well beyond personal connections.

He spoke of “a basic bargain” that has broken down in the United States. ‘If you contributed to the success of the enterprise … you got to share in the benefits. If you worked hard and played by the rules, you got to share in the nation’s prosperity,” Biden said.

Since 1979, the vice president said, the wages for the top 1 percent have grown 140 percent, and the wages for the bottom 90 percent have only grown 15 percent. For African-Americans, the situation is worse, Biden said. They have higher rates of unemployment and a greater rate of wage stagnation than the country’s average.

“The bargain has to be restored,” Biden said. “The people who were once left out have to be brought in. One of the ways to accomplish this is to make sure we have the best-educated, most-skilled workforce in the world.”

That emphasis on education is where HBCUs come in. “You are the single most capable tool to help us restore that bargain,” Biden told the crowd.

The STEM field is one area where HBCUs have a particularly important role to play, Biden said. Having a STEM-educated workforce will be critical to the economic success of the United States in the coming decades, Biden said. “You, HBCUs, are leading way,” he said. “HBCUs are only 3 percent of the nation’s schools. And you produce 27 percent of African-American bachelor’s graduates in STEM education.”

Prior to Biden’s appearance onstage, Dr. William R. Harvey, president of Hampton University, set a cautionary note, mentioning a report out in December that found that STEM education at HBCUs was “at its lowest level since 2000.”

“We need to broaden the participation in STEM, and we need more help from the federal government,” Harvey said. He called on Biden to help HBCUs reach a “5 percent aspirational goal” of federal funding.

During his speech, Biden touted the investments the federal government makes in HBCUs  a figure he set at a total of $1 billion each year. Pell Grant funding has also increased since 2008, Biden noted; student loan repayments have been capped at 10 percent of income so graduates can go into lower-paying but socially valuable jobs, such as social work, teaching and more. Tax credits for college tuition have also been expanded.

He also addressed concerns among HBCU leaders regarding President Barack Obama’s proposal to make community college free, saying that he was well aware of a sentiment shared among the HBCU community that making community college free might “undercut” some HBCUs’ already-challenging financial circumstances. “What we’re trying to do is make it clear to the country, make it clear to everyone that 12 years of education is no longer enough to compete in the 21st century,” Biden said.

Biden ended his speech with a call to HBCU leaders to take up the fight against sexual violence, as part of his It’s On Us campaign. “It was very heartfelt,” Dr. Ivory Toldson, interim executive director of the White House Initiative on HBCUs, said of Biden’s address.

“He hit on a number of important points, but more importantly, he recognizes the significance of this community of colleges,” Dr. David H. Swinton, president of Benedict College, said after Biden’s speech.

Staff writer Catherine Morris can be reached at [email protected].

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