HBCU Presidents Stress Need for Greater Financial Help
Congressional hearing draws 300 people to Wilberforce University in Ohio
By Mark Fisher
Historically Black colleges and universities need greater federal financial help to make college affordable for students and to install the technology necessary to best prepare those students, four college presidents told congressional leaders last month. While making no specific promises of funding, U.S. Rep. Pete Hoekstra, R-Mich., who is chairman of the House Subcommittee on Select Education, assured the presidents that strengthening Black colleges is a priority of his panel. He also challenged them to become more involved with urban school districts to help improve the quality of graduates from those high schools.
The two-hour congressional hearing drew nearly 300 people to the Wilberforce University campus to listen to testimony from Wilberforce President John Henderson, Central State University President John Garland and two other presidents of predominantly Black higher-education institutions: Dr. W. Clinton Pettus of Cheyney University of Pennsylvania; and Dr. Marjorie Harris of the Lewis College of Business in Detroit. Hoekstra was joined by subcommittee members Patrick Tiberi, R-Ohio, and Robert Scott, D-Virginia, and by Dave Hobson, R-Ohio, a former member of the board of trustees of both Central State and Wilberforce.
The field hearing — the second of three the subcommittee has scheduled — was designed to examine the role HBCUs play, the resources they need and ways the federal government can assist them, Hoekstra said. Garland delivered a stirring testimonial for historically Black universities, evoking his own experience entering Central State in 1968 “as a 24-year-old high school dropout” who had obtained a GED and served in Vietnam. The university nurtured him and built his confidence, and upon graduation, he applied to Ohio State University’s law school and went on to get his law degree. The years spent at a historically Black college represent “the only time in the life of an African American where skin color will not be an issue,” Garland said.
The CSU president said Congress now recognizes the vital role Black colleges play in higher education — a departure from the attitudes of a decade or two past, when some federal officials questioned whether such institutions were worth supporting with federal money. Hoekstra and other committee members said federal funding for HBCUs has increased by 36.5 percent between 1995 and 2000, and will jump again in 2001 from $169 million to $185 million.
The college presidents, however, said the federal government should do more. Henderson called for an increase in the Pell Grant maximum award from $3,750 to $6,000, with a financial incentive, or “Super” Pell Grant, offered to those students with high grade point averages. About 80 percent of Black students who earn a four-year degree amass an average student loan debt load of $13,000, which would discourage them from going on to graduate school, Wilberforce president John Henderson said. About 64 percent of Wilberforce students and 83 percent of Central State students receive some form of federal financial aid. Garland said he also supports an increase of Pell Grant aid, to $4,350, and for increases in other forms of federal student aid.
“It is vitally important that we increase funding for our grant programs to ensure that the number of students taking on loan debt does not increase,” Garland said.
Henderson said the 21st century “has placed extraordinary demands for new technology in academic programs, for student living and learning environments, and for laboratory and research facilities.” He called for increased federal support to help Black colleges buy computers and software, install wiring and telecommunications equipment and train students and faculty.
Hoekstra told the college presidents that he is often asked by congressional colleagues why Black colleges deserve “special” assistance. Pettus replied the schools have much smaller endowment funds than other colleges and are forced to postpone maintenance and replacement of facilities. Most important, the Cheyney president said, they often must spend precious dollars on remedial classes to help their students — many of them products of urban school districts — get up to speed enough to handle college material. Harris said her school gets graduates of Detroit schools who have fourth-grade reading skills and little or no computation skills. Garland agreed, saying Central State sees some students who are “underprepared” by their urban high schools. “We meet the needs of those who were neglected in their K-12” schools, Garland said. Hoekstra challenged all of the school presidents to expand their existing links to urban school districts to boost students’ academic performance and help them achieve their potential.
Mark Fisher covers higher education for the Dayton Daily News in Dayton, Ohio.
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