Updating the aging infrastructure in Historically Black Colleges and Universities
A good investment has many characteristics: low risk, high returns, appreciation over time, and positive externalities.
We believe that our bill, the IGNITE HBCU Excellence Act, represents that kind of opportunity for both our Historically Black Colleges and Universities, and the American people. The IGNITE HBCU Excellence Act will be one of the most transformative pieces of legislation for Historically Black Colleges and Universities in history.
HBCUs have always been agents of excellence in education for students of color. They’re a smart enough investment to bring the two of us, a Republican senator and a Democratic congresswoman, together as lead sponsors. Since Tim joined Congress in 2011 and Alma joined in 2014, we’ve both championed HBCUs. Alma co-founded the first bipartisan Congressional HBCU Caucus in 2015, and we both currently serve as co-chairs. Last Congress, President Trump signed two of our HBCU bills — the FUTURE Act and the HBCU Partners Act — into law.
Why have both parties put in so much effort for just over 100 schools across the country? What HBCUs lack in terms of big budgets and enormous endowments, they make up for in real results. On an annual basis, HBCUs contribute nearly $15 billion to their communities, produce 134,000 jobs, and create $46.8 billion in alumni career earnings that can be directly attributed to their degrees.
HBCUs produce more than 17 percent of all bachelor’s degrees awarded to Black Americans. Additionally, 60 percent of students enrolled at HBCUs are first generation or low-income students. But more importantly, HBCUs outperform their peers in supporting and graduating these students.
When it comes to producing the students who will help the United States compete with China and secure America’s technological advantage, HBCUs graduate 27 percent of Black Americans with bachelor’s degrees in STEM subjects, as well as a significant portion of Black Americans with doctorates in science and engineering.
Our HBCUs have unlocked opportunities for generations of students, especially in underserved communities, with patriotic legacies like World War II’s Tuskegee Airmen from the university of the same name, “hidden figures” like Katherine Johnson who helped us win the space race, and astronaut Ronald McNair, who lost his life in the Challenger explosion.
HBCUs have achieved all of this on shoestring budgets. Despite more than a century of underfunding, as well as a lack of access to traditional sources of capital, HBCUs not only survived but thrived, graduating leaders from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to Vice President Kamala Harris.
However, a 2018 Government Accountability Office (GAO) report revealed that “HBCUs continue to face challenges in securing financing to undertake needed capital projects” and “these colleges may be unable to make the campus improvements necessary to attract and retain students, potentially jeopardizing their long-term sustainability.” Seventy of seventy-nine HBCUs surveyed reported that 46 percent of their building space needed repair or complete replacement.
These engines of opportunity can’t provide a solid education without a strong foundation, which brings us back to our solution: the Institutional Grants for New Infrastructure, Technology, and Education for HBCU Excellence Act (IGNITE HBCU Excellence Act). This historic investment in HBCUs will rectify decades of disrepair, while creating infrastructure jobs and continuing to ensure academic excellence at these institutions.
The IGNITE HBCU Excellence Act would authorize funds to renovate, modernize, or construct new campus facilities — the sort of brick-and-mortar infrastructure spending the vast majority of Americans support. It funds infrastructure for community-based partnerships that provide students and community members with academic, health, and public services.
Importantly, it will help our HBCUs procure equipment and technology needed to facilitate high-quality research and instruction. The bill will bridge the digital divide and make schools resilient to the pandemic by providing access to campus-wide, reliable, high-speed broadband. All of these investments will give HBCUs the chance to attract more, better research and development opportunities — opportunities both of us believe will show a higher return on investment than those at other schools.
Finally, the Act will ensure the resilience, safety, and sustainability of campus facilities, and it will encourage additional public and private investments in HBCUs. These schools — and their students — will not be able to reach their potential without partnering with the private sector and private donors. And because of the longtime relationships between the private sector and HBCUs, HBCUs are strongly encouraged to seek support from private investment to qualify for funding from our IGNITE HBCU Excellence Act.
Our bill invests in new infrastructure and technology and uses the power of private partnerships to enhance and grow these schools. And to make sure the program is kept accountable, we’ve tasked the secretary of Education to provide a report in four years on the efficacy of the program before the authorization expires in five.
HBCUs already have strong outcomes. The IGNITE HBCU Excellence Act is the right investment at the right time to make sure these institutions continue on the path to greatness.
Tim Scott is the junior senator from South Carolina and Alma S. Adams represents the 12th District of North Carolina.