Bad investment advice: Cutting federal funds to HBCUs

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No one knows what promising careers could be ruined by cutting federal help for HBCUs. But we can get an idea by looking at the students who have graduated from these colleges in the past. Dr. Martin Luther King graduated from an HBCU. So did Brown University’s Dr. Ruth Simmons, U.S. Surgeon General Regina Benjamin, congressman and civil rights pioneer John Lewis, and film director Spike Lee.  

And when the National Science Foundation looked at the undergraduate education received by African American science and engineering Ph.D.s over the past decade, they found that of the top ten colleges, eight—the first eight—were HBCUs, ahead of elite Ivy League private colleges and flagship state universities.     

It isn’t just the badly needed pipeline of college-educated workers that such draconian cuts would imperil.  Located in nineteen states and the District of Columbia, HBCUs are local and regional economic engines in a fragile economy. Statistics from a Department of Education report show that HBCUs are responsible for over 180,000 jobs, including college professors and staff and employees who work at businesses that depend on the patronage of colleges and their students. Their total nationwide economic impact, adjusted for inflation, is $13 billion. If HBCUs were a company, they would be in the top half of the Fortune 500.

Do we really want, in the tough economy we are struggling through, to jeopardize so many promising careers, so many jobs and so much economic impact?

And for what?  The gains from these cuts would be minimal.  The $85 million in cuts that House appropriators are discussing adds up to only 52 cents per man, woman and child living in the states where HBCUs are located.

But even that lopsided cost-benefit ratio doesn’t exhaust the list of what is wrong with cutting federal support for HBCUs.  A lot of concern has been expressed recently about the high and increasing cost of going to college, and the high and increasing burden of debt many college graduates must carry into their careers. 

HBCUs have an answer.  HBCU tuition is typically lower than tuition at other institutions.  For example, the tuition at UNCF’s 38 member colleges and universities averages approximately 30 percent less than tuition at comparable non-HBCU institutions. So HBCUs provide not only an affordable education to over 300,000 students every year, they also provide a model for other colleges and universities of how they, too, can provide a good education for tuition their students can afford.

So what is the financial bottom line?  HBCUs produce college graduates—college graduates who earn twice what their high-school-only counterparts make, and thus pay more in taxes to federal and state governments, reducing the budget deficit.  HBCUs are engines of regional and local economies.  

Their employees and the employees of the companies they do business with pay taxes—reducing the budget deficit.  HBCU graduates are part of the college-educated workforce that American employers need to increase profits, on which they pay—that’s right—taxes that reduce the budget deficit.

So if anybody tells you that cutting the support we give to HBCUs will bring the deficit down—find a different advisor.

Lomax is President and CEO of UNCF (United Negro College Fund), the nation’s largest minority education organization.