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HBCU Presidents Take Their Case For Funding To Congress

Cutbacks in federal and state spending coupled with infrastructure repairs and staunch competition from mainstream institutions with limitless resources have ensued severe financial constraints on America’s HBCUs.

A panel of HBCU presidents and administrators stressed the need for greater federal financial support during a congressional hearing Wednesday intended to address the many obstacles facing America’s private and public historically Black colleges and universities.

“It is all about capital at Fisk,” said Fisk University President Hazel O’Leary. “We were the first university in Nashville. We have a campus that was listed under the register of historic sites. But with that comes an overwhelming requirement to take care of these beautiful buildings. When I arrived deferred maintenance last done in 2005 was at $19 million. [Today] we’re over $30 million in deferred maintenance. Debt service is approximately 10 percent of our budget.”

As critics continue to question the viability of HBCUs, especially those struggling from low graduation rates, fiscal troubles, accreditation problems and the instability of leadership, the fact remains that HBCUs play a critical role in educating low-income and traditionally underrepresented students.

While HBCUs represent only 3 percent of all colleges and universities, they enroll close to one-third of all Black students. Forty percent of HBCU students pursue four-year degrees in science, technology, engineering and math, and about half of all Black students in teaching fields attended HBCUs. Three-quarters of all African-American Ph.D.s did their undergraduate studies at an HBCU, and, according to a study conducted by the National Center for Education Statistics, the total economic impact of the nation’s HBCUs in 2001 was $10.2 billion.

Still, nearly 80 percent of students attending HBCUs require some sort of financial aid. Financial inadequacies contribute to a number of Black students dropping out of college, and small endowments restrict the amount of financial aid historically Black institutions can offer prospective students. Spelman College’s endowment is worth over $100,000 per student, making it the highest endowment per student of all HBCUs. However, Grinnell College in Iowa, a majority institution similar to Spelman in size, boasts a financial endowment over $1 billion.

Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee, told the group of college presidents in attendance representing the National Association for Equal Opportunity in Higher Education, “Some disparities still persist between students attending HBCUs and students at comparable schools. There remains a great deal of work ahead to ensure that students at HBCUs and other minority-serving institutions have the same economic opportunities as other college students.”

The panel pressed for reauthorization of the Higher Education Act, which both chambers of Congress have approved different versions of. The final version is expected to strengthen the educational resources of colleges and universities and allow them to provide more financial aid to low-income and middle-income students.

In addition reauthorizing the Higher Education Act, the presidents sought stronger federal support for Title IV Student Assistance Programs, which have enabled schools like Johnson C. Smith University to maintain student enrollment, with 83 percent of its student receiving financial aid.

“We (referring to HBCUs) exist to serve a particular population,” said Dr. Dorothy Cowser Yancy, president of Johnson C. Smith University. “If we didn’t exist, you would have to create us. According to data from the National Science Foundation, six of the top 20 predominantly White universities received more federal funds for research than 79 HBCUs combined. Despite a quantifiable record of success at educating African-American scientists and engineers, HBCUs continue receiving disproportionately fewer federal dollars.”

In 2007, Kentucky State University, an HBCU, was listed among the Princeton Review’s “BestSoutheastern Colleges” and U.S. News and World Report’s “Best Colleges 2007.”

KSU President Mary Sias told members of the House Education and Labor Committee, “I am often asked whether HBCUs continue to be viable. The answer I give is a resounding yes. HBCUs are as vital now to the educational is America as they have ever been.”  

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