For the country’s sake, HBCUs must make progress


There is a slow-moving threat in our nation that is ravaging higher education.  To the untrained eye, it might go unnoticed, but there are thousands who do see the dark clouds and feel the pelting rain of the damaging, persistent storm.  Across this great country, our campuses are flooded with bad news: decreasing funding, increasing tuition, (the prospect of) decreasing enrollment and increasing debt for our students and institutions. 

More acutely, our nation’s Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) are directly in the eye of the storm, fighting just to tread these waters.  While other colleges and universities are facing these challenges, our institutions must also deal with the legacy of decades of discrimination, underfunding and both intentional and unintentional neglect. 

{mosads}As I begin my tenure as Chair of the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities’ Council of 1890 Universities, the public land-grant HBCU institutions created by the Second Morrill Act of 1890, I believe Congress, the Trump administration and the private sector can take concrete and immediate steps to work with us to further our progress.

The proposals we brought to President Trump and to Congressional leaders, including the co-conveners of our visit, Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) and Rep. Mark Walker (R-N.C.), would go a long way to addressing key problems we are facing.

First, the states in which our schools reside need to fully fund the match required for the federal dollars our 1890 institutions receive.  At many of our schools, we have been forced to return millions of dollars to the federal government since 2000, when state matching funds were first required for our land-grant dollars.  For example, at Lincoln University of Missouri, over 17 years we have received $96 million in federal funding.  Our state funding total for the land-grant match is $9 million. Despite the mandate for a dollar-for-dollar match, we are receiving approximately one-quarter on the dollar.  This disparity costs not only the land-grant operations, but the university as a whole, when we must return a large portion of that funding.  Over the last two years, we have made strides to explain this plight to Missouri state legislators, but we still have a long way to go before we are fully matched.  Other 1890s are doing the same, with some filing lawsuits as the last viable option. We believe the federal government should use every incentive and tool at its disposal to make states meet their financial obligations.

Second, general operating funds from our states are down as well.  One research study found that 46 states are spending, on average, 18 percent less per student post-recession.  In order to make up for these cuts, institutions in many states have responded by raising tuition.  Tuition increases make college less affordable and accessible for many students, particularly those at HBCUs.  We must seek solutions to maintain that accessibility through the development of scholarships and the reinstitution of year-round Pell Grants. 

Rep. David Scott (D-Ga.) introduced legislation last Congress, and again in January, which would provide $19 million for scholarships for students at our HCBUs.  We need more advocates like Scott and allies like the Thurgood Marshall College Fund to help our students attain a college education.  

Third, once we get students into our schools, our next goal is to help them become successful citizens. Book learning and classroom work alone do not make students competitive in the global workforce.  Our HBCUs must work to increase work-study and internship opportunities.  Our students need to work at government agencies and privately-owned entities. There is no reason why interns from every HBCU should not be filling the halls on Capitol Hill this summer and throughout the year.  Similarly, our large and small businesses have an obligation to recruit and partner with all colleges and universities and we intend to forge those relationships. Sure, we can sit back and tell our students to blaze their own trails, but to truly live up to our missions, we should be helping them build those trails. 

In addition to these challenges for HBCUs, there are other important opportunities, including making certain that there is at least a $25 billion infrastructure package for modernizing, renovating and repairing our buildings and facilities and installing broadband and other science and technology upgrades for our schools.

The almost 90 HBCU Presidents and Chancellors who came to Washington last week left after our conversations feeling hopeful that progress can be made.  Together, we can and will withstand the storm that is hitting higher education.  And, we will reap the harvest for the public investment in HBCUs and our students’ hard work when these outstanding young people take their places and become the leaders of this great nation. 

Dr. Kevin Rome is President of Lincoln University in Missouri and is Chair of the Association of Public Land-grant Universities’ Council of 1890 Universities.  The Council of 1890 Universities is comprised of the 19 presidents and chancellors of APLU-member historically Black land-grant universities. 

The views expressed by this author are their own and are not the views of The Hill.

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