After meeting with President Trump and members of Congress in late February, presidents and chancellors of historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) expressed a sense of cautious optimism that there might be more support for their institutions under the new administration. Those hopes were not realized when the administration rolled out its budget proposal on Thursday.
Instead of channeling more dollars to HBCUs, the new administration seeks to maintain current funding levels. Pell Grant funding, a program critical to the continuing viability of many HBCUs, would stay the same, while other programs, like TRIO and GEAR UP, that are designed to help low-income and first-generation college students through college, would see a loss of funding or be eliminated altogether in the Trumpian vision of America.
This is vastly different from the “aspirational” levels of funding that HBCU advocacy organizations, such as the United Negro College Fund (UNCF) and the Thurgood Marshall College Fund (TMCF), were asking for. TMCF requested a $25 billion one-time investment in all 101 of the nation’s accredited HBCUs during a two-day event in late February in which nearly 90 HBCU presidents and chancellors met with Congressional leaders, the president and senior advisers to the president.
Over the course of the same meeting, presidents and chancellors asked for boosts in Pell spending, Title III funding, a restoration of year-round Pell Grants, and investments in technology and support for the preservation of historic buildings on HBCU campuses.
“Right now, we are not coming away with very much,” Dr. David Wilson, president of Morgan State University, an HBCU located in Baltimore, said on Friday. “I hope what the president was doing a couple weeks ago when he was inviting HBCU presidents and chancellors to the White House was something more than ‘sound and fury, signifying nothing.’”
President Trump has said he would “do more for HBCUs than any other president has done before” and signed an executive order in late February shifting the White House Initiative on HBCUs from the U.S. Department of Education to the White House.
Yet the budget put forward on Thursday was a “disappointment,” according to Wilson.
“I certainly was hoping that there would be more support for HBCUs,” Wilson said. “Why else would 80 or 90 HBCU presidents make their way to the White House from all over the country, if they were not expecting that there would be a significant investment in their institutions? I see absolutely nothing in his framework thus far that is leading me to conclude that money is following his executive order.”
Despite not meeting aspirational funding goals, TMCF said in a statement on Thursday night that the budget proposal “demonstrates that HBCUs matter to this Administration.”
“TMCF believes that the HBCU President/Chancellor visit with President Trump in the Oval Office, coupled with the Fly-In hosted by Representative Mark Walker (R-NC) and Senator Tim Scott (R-SC), were critical to maintaining existing funding levels for HBCUs, and will serve us well as we work with the Legislative Branch to advocate for a budget that will benefit the Black College Community,” the statement continued.
TMCF president Johnny C. Taylor could not be reached for further comment on Friday.
Higher education experts say that elements of the proposal are difficult to interpret at present, since it is relatively light on detail. For instance, the budget says it would “maintain” funding levels for HBCUs and MSIs at $492 million.
However, funds from Title III and Title V programs provided $577 million to HBCUs and Hispanic-serving institutions (HSIs) in fiscal year 2017, more than the $492 million that the administration is proposing for 2018. This suggests that some institutions would see a loss of funding if Congress followed the administration’s recommendations, although it is unclear at present which institutions would see cuts.
“It appears as though there’s a commitment to maintaining the existing level of funds for HBCUs, but the total money for MSIs is less than the previous year, so that implies some sort of cut — potentially to HSIs,” said Dr. Tiffany Jones, director of higher education policy at the Education Trust.
Jones stressed that, without further detail, any discussion of a loss of funding was still purely speculative. Given the rhetoric about supporting HBCUs, however, the logical presumption would appear to be that HSIs would feel the blow instead of HBCUs.
HBCUs would also be significantly impacted by any changes to the Pell program. “It’s critical to remember that 70 percent of HBCU students are Pell recipients, so any changes to that program will have a significant impact,” Jones said.
According to a recent Ed Trust report, all of the nation’s four-year HBCUs serve a student population that is at least 40 percent Pell eligible. Approximately half serve student population that is three-quarters Pell eligible.
Shaw University, in Raleigh, North Carolina, is one such example, serving a student population that is nearly 80 percent Pell eligible. Dr. Tashni-Ann Dubroy, Shaw president, said that restoring year-round Pell grants would be of tremendous benefit to her students, allowing them to complete college faster and with less financial stress.
“I can tell you that we want to see our students graduate within a four-year period, and by having access to federal funding over the entire year, it would certainly give them a leg up with regard to graduating on time and with less debt,” Dubroy told Diverse.
The budget proposal still leaves room for the renewal of year-round Pell, “mathematically speaking,” said Carrie Warick, director of policy and advocacy at the National College Access Network (NCAN).
More troublingly, the budget proposes redirecting “surplus” Pell dollars, amounting to $3.9 billion, to areas outside of education. This would leave the Pell program at risk in future years, Warick said. Surplus Pell funding is held in reserve for years when there is higher student demand for Pell dollars.
“Pell funding is cyclical,” Warick explained. “When the economy goes down, more students qualify for Pell, and more students are more likely to consider going into higher education to start a new career path.
“That is why we are always concerned with moving any money that appears to be ‘extra’ out of Pell, because we don’t know what’s going to happen in the future, and we don’t know what future student needs are,” she continued.
The administration is also seeking to make cuts to or eliminate student development programs, like TRIO, GEAR-UP, and AmeriCorps. Reducing or eliminating these programs would have an outsize effect on low-income students’ ability to access college, Warick said.
“Students are successful in higher education if they’re both able to afford it and if they have the proper supports that they need to go through the process, particularly low-income students and students who are first in their family to attend college,” she commented. “We know that additional advising and tutoring helping them navigate the college process, which they are unlikely to get from a family member [if they are first generation to college], is very important.
“Maintaining the maximum Pell Grant is incredibly important, but for students to truly to be successful they need the supports provided by these other programs,” Warick said.
Others also see risks for disadvantaged students in the budget proposal.
“I’m befuddled,” Wilson commented. “I don’t know what the basic philosophy is that is undergirding these cuts to programs that are designed to help needy students.”
Although the Department of Education accounts for roughly two-thirds of all federal funding to HBCUs, other agencies provide grants and contracts to HBCUs. That is one area that HBCUs will have to watch out for, according to Dr. Ivory Toldson, president and CEO of the Quality Education for Minorities (QEM) and a Howard University professor. Toldson led the White House Initiative on HBCUs up until the summer of 2016.
HBCUs receive approximately $100 million in grants and contracts from the National Institutes for Health (NIH), and other agencies, Toldson noted. The administration called for cutting NIH’s budget by 20 percent.
“Moving forward from this proposal, we’re going to need a lot more diligence, advocacy and awareness of these opportunities outside of Title III and make sure that federal agencies aren’t looking at their investment in HBCUs first as a way to mitigate the impact of some of the cuts to their agencies,” Toldson said.
Staff writer Catherine Morris can be reached at [email protected].