A series of changes on Capitol Hill is providing new momentum for efforts to create a federal aid program for predominantly Black colleges — institutions that enroll a large number of African-Americans but are not recognized as historically Black schools.
An estimated 50 to 75 colleges and universities — many in urban areas — may fit the description of predominantly Black institutions, or PBIs, by virtue of their high enrollments of Black students. Two of the most prominent are Chicago State University and City University of New York-Medgar Evers College.
“Predominantly Black institutions serve similar students [as HBCUs]. Many of our students are first-generation and low income,” says Dr. Elnora D. Daniel, president of Chicago State.
While leaders of some of these colleges are active in Black college organizations, the institutions do not qualify as HBCUs because they were not created specifically for Blacks after the Civil War or at any time before 1964. As a result, they have not been eligible for funding under the Higher Education Act’s Title III Black college program.
But PBIs could get their own funding program within HEA, which is up for renewal on Capitol Hill this year. U.S. Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., a Democratic presidential candidate, has introduced legislation to designate a new section of Title III for these institutions.
“To restore America’s competitiveness, we must invest in the success of traditionally underrepresented groups,” Obama has said. “This bill provides a good start in reaching that goal.”
Some observers are calling the Obama bill the best chance in years to pass a PBI proposal. In past years, some proponents had wanted to add PBIs to the existing federal HBCU program, which triggered fears of competition for limited funds as well as concern about potential legal challenges based on the different charters of the institutions.
Adding PBIs to the existing Black college program was a priority for former U.S. Rep. Major Owens, D-N.Y., a longtime Congressional Black Caucus member. Owens had maintained that adding PBIs to the program would broaden political support for Black colleges. But the long-time lawmaker retired in January.
“The gauntlet has been passed,” Daniel says.
A member of the board of the National Association for Equal Opportunity in Education, Daniel says the Obama plan has picked up endorsements from NAFEO, the United Negro College Fund, the American Association of Community Colleges and other organizations. “The way the legislation has been revamped, it does not present the challenge that it once did,” she says.
“It’s a great opportunity,” agrees Dr. Edison Jackson, president of Medgar Evers College, where 94 percent of the 5,700 students are Black. “It seems to me there’s room for all of us.”
As a separate program, aid to PBIs should be able to withstand any legal challenges, Daniel says. The aid would be similar in structure to the existing federal aid program for Hispanic-serving institutions, which provides aid to colleges that enroll a sizable number of Hispanic students.
“Many students attending predominantly Black institutions have already beaten the odds to progress this far,” Obama says, noting that the bill could help more than 250,000 students.
“These institutions have for years given our children the skills and knowledge they need to succeed in today’s economy, and their recognition is long overdue,” he says, adding that many community colleges could also qualify for the program.
The bill would define a PBI as a college of at least 1,000 undergraduates in which Blacks represent 40 percent or more of the student body. At least half of all undergraduates also must be low-income or first-generation students.
The legislation would provide a minimum grant of $250,000.
Jackson, another NAFEO board member, says Medgar Evers could find immediate uses for the funding.
“CUNY has supported our mission well, but additional funding would allow us to meet more student needs,” he says. The college could spend a predominantly Black college grant on several priorities, including student counseling, tutoring and help for students who come to college from lower-quality K-12 schools, he says.
The college also wants to expand a fledgling study abroad program. “Our students should be world-class citizens,” Jackson says.
Congress is likely to consider the Obama plan when it takes up HEA, proponents say.
– Charles Dervarics
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