The White House Initiative on Historically Black Colleges and Universities is wrapping up a conference in Washington, D.C., today commemorating “National HBCU Week.” The White House Initiative, along with the President’s Board of Advisors on HBCUs, is tasked with maximizing federal grant opportunities and building private partnerships with HBCUs, as well as advising U.S. Education Secretary Margaret Spellings on how to best strengthen HBCUs.
In this vein, Spellings addressed assembled dignitaries during a press conference Tuesday during the event. Also on stage were Howard University President H. Patrick Swygert and Howard freshman Sabrina Simmons. The primary topics of discussion were the new Academic Competitiveness Grant and the national Science and Mathematics Access to Retain Talent (SMART) Grant. Qualified Pell Grant-eligible students began applying for the new grants on July 1. Together, the grants provide $790 million in funding for the 2006-2007 academic year and $4.5 billion over the next five years.
The grants hope to encourage students like Simmons to take more challenging high school courses and pursue high-demand college majors, specifically in math and science disciplines and also in certain foreign languages. Simmons said her goal is to put her studies in dietetics to work for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, adding, “I want to do research in that field. I love biology, it’s my passion.”
Simmons’ passion has earned her a $750 grant, which she said will do much to defray sky-high science textbook costs.
“It’s really a two-part grant,” that in essence doubles the Pell Grant, Spellings said. She noted that the academic competitiveness grants provide additional resources of $750 for freshmen and $1,350 for sophomores. Students like Simmons, who pursue math and science fields, can get an additional $4,000 a year.
“It’s very significant, and for the first time, we’ve said, ‘We want and need more Sabrinas, and we’re willing to make college more affordable to get more Sabrinas,” Spellings said.
The new grant announcement responds to some of the recommendations of Spellings’ Commission on the Future of Higher Education, she said. The commission’s findings had included a call to increase higher education access and performance via more aid to low-income students, enhance student preparation and restructure the financial aid system to improve the measurement and management of costs.
“I sometimes say that our strategy in higher education, at least on the financial aid front, has kind of been ‘put $80 billion a year out, and sort of hope for the best.’ And we haven’t been as strategic as we might be around saying ‘we need engineers, we need people studying food science’ and so forth,” Spellings said. “So I think as we align resources around some of our priorities, I think that very much aligns with the commission report. I also think using these resources to leverage this discussion between higher education and secondary education is very critical, and the commission report really keyed in on that.”
Swygert applauded Spellings for her work. “I’m privileged to have such a positive relationship with Secretary Spellings and I’m privileged still that she listens. … What we’re saying is that we not only need more, but we need more focus. Science and math is something that we all have bought into and understand,” he said. “The secretary’s reference to the historically Black schools and colleges continuing to do what they’ve done for 100 years, namely relate to their communities, that’s not a new thing for us.”
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