Leaders of historically black colleges say they’ll fight a reduction in a federal program they call a financial lifeline at a time of economic distress for the schools and their students.
President Barack Obama‘s education budget, unveiled Thursday, included major spending increases in many areas — but didn’t include an extra $85 million that black institutions have received annually for the past two years thanks to a 2007 change to the student loan laws.
That two-year-old program provided direct funds to federally recognized HBCUs — historically black colleges and universities.
Other direct federal support to the schools would increase from $238 million to $250 million, but with the expiration of the HBCU fund the schools effectively would see a $73 million cut.
A program supporting Native American tribal colleges would also see decreased funding, while one for institutions serving large numbers of Hispanic students would see an increase from $93 million to $98 million.
Education Department officials emphasized that all such institutions stand to gain from other parts of the budget, notably the proposed increase in the maximum Pell Grant for low-income students by $200 — to $5,550.
Still, the move could suggest that even as the administration pushes big education spending increases focused on low-income and minority students, direct support for institutions isn’t the most favored method. The HBCU program is unusual; most federal help for higher education goes to students, and thus only indirectly to schools.
“The administration is definitely committed to strengthening HBCUs and other colleges and universities that serve minority populations,” said Carmel Martin, assistant secretary of education, on a press conference call Thursday. “And one of the best ways we can do that is by supporting our students.”
The historically black colleges and universities have been hit particularly hard by the recession, and HBCU leaders said this is no time to cut back on programs offering direct support to institutions that play an outsized role educating the neediest students.
The 105 federally recognized HBCUs make up just 3 percent of U.S. colleges but account for nearly 20 percent of undergraduate degrees awarded to blacks, according to UNCF, the United Negro College Fund. However, some have struggled with low graduation rates. An AP analysis earlier this year found that, overall, black students at four-year HBCUs have lower graduation rates than black students at other schools.
HBCUs have about 132,000 students receiving Pell grants, according to an Associated Press analysis of federal figures collected by the nonprofit group The Education Trust. Even if all got the maximum $200 Pell Grant increase, that would provide HBCUs new revenue totaling only about one-third of the funding cut outlined in the budget.
“We believe it is in the best interest of our country to ensure that (HBCUs) are strong,” said John Donohue, UNCF’s executive vice president for development.
Donohue said the federal program was responsible for important college readiness efforts at Dillard University in New Orleans, where he previously worked.
Sen. Richard Burr, a Republican from North Carolina — home to 11 HBCUs — questioned the administration’s priorities, considering its decision to spare $9 million in funding for whaling history museums.
Education Department officials said the additional $85 million the HBCU program enjoyed the last two years was temporary and that HBCUs shouldn’t have counted on it continuing.
Lezli Baskerville, president and CEO the National Association for Equal Opportunity in Higher Education, a group representing predominantly black colleges, said giving money directly to the colleges is justified considering “the nation’s sorry history of support for HBCUs.” She noted government provided more support favoring other kinds of institutions, like research universities.
Ultimately, higher education officials believe Congress won’t let the funding decline. Terry Hartle, senior vice president of the American Council on Education, said HBCUs have strong support in both parties and both houses of Congress.
“To see the federal support decline significantly would have a real, substantial impact on the institutions right away,” Hartle said. “A lot of the philanthropic support is not as available as it was two years ago. They can’t raise tuition.”
Even the administration sounded like it expected Congress to step in.
“I think (HBCUs) understandably will try to encourage Congress to continue it anyway, and I understand that strategically for them,” said deputy undersecretary of education Robert Shireman.