HBCU advocates urge Congress to deliver on Biden’s promises

By Danielle Douglas-Gabriel

The U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C. (Stefani Reynolds/Bloomberg)

When Congress reached a compromise on the infrastructure bill this summer, historically Black college and university advocates were struck by the absence of President Biden’s proposals to support the schools.

Gone was any mention of money for research incubators, laboratory upgrades or repairing aging facilities produced by decades of state and federal underfunding. But the White House assured Black colleges that the ambitious agenda Biden set for their schools would be part of a larger legislative package.As lawmakers released pieces of that package this week, HBCU advocates learned that much of the proposed investments in the sector were either jettisoned or scaled back. And what remains would require Black colleges with limited resources to compete with well-heeled institutions for grant funding.

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“We are struck by the contrast between the vision laid out by the president and the actual application that we see in Congress,” said Lodriguez Murray, senior vice president for public policy and government affairs at the United Negro College Fund. “It buoys us to work like heck to make sure that the students and institutions we serve remain at the table and are an active part of this build back better agenda.”

The House Education Committee crafted a sprawling bill that makes good on key tenets of Biden’s $3.5 trillion spending plan, including universal community college and universal preschool. The bill would cover two years of tuition for many students attending historically Black colleges and universities, tribal colleges and other minority-serving institutions.

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Yet lawmakers dialed back funding for those schools designed to better serve students. Biden proposed a total of $55 billion for HBCUs and MSIs to upgrade research infrastructure and create up to 200 research incubators to bolster STEM education. House Democrats, however, are only setting aside $2 billion in grant funding that higher education leaders say would place many HBCUs at a disadvantage.

While the bill bars schools that engage in high levels of research activity from competing for the grant, it still affords minority-serving institutions with far more resources than most HBCU a chance at an award.

There are more than 800 colleges and universities considered “minority-serving” because of their history, control or student body, according to the Education Department. Many have smaller endowments and institutional resources than their peers. But some are large public institutions with teams of dedicated grant writers, a luxury that few HBCUs can afford, said Murray at UNCF.

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Some lawmakers, including House Education Committee chair Rep. Robert C. “Bobby” Scott (D-Va.), voiced similar concerns during the committee markup of the bill this week. North Carolina Rep. Alma Adams, a Democrat who founded the HBCU Caucus in Congress, said HBCUs would be effectively disadvantaged by the competitive grant structure.

“If this bill is to be truly transformational and if we are to build our HBCUs back better, then we must ensure that HBCUs receive a fair and equitable piece of the pie,” Adams said. “We cannot repeat mistakes that have been made in other federal programs where they are forced to compete with institutions that do not share the same legacy of discrimination and neglect.”

Congressional aides say lawmakers are working to resolve the structure of the grant funding.

Harry L. Williams, president of the Thurgood Marshall College Fund that supports public historically Black colleges, hopes lawmakers also increase the money allocated to $3 billion. He and other HBCU advocates say they are optimistic.

“Education and Labor Chairman Bobby Scott has long been a champion for HBCUs and we are confident that he will make the proper adjustments,” Williams said.

Biden’s plan recognized the competitive disadvantage Black colleges face in securing research dollars because of the legacy Adams referenced.

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The federal government for decades denied Black colleges funding provided to predominantly White institutions to build research facilities and conduct projects. States, meanwhile, shortchanged their public historically Black institutions, creating lasting disparities that have led to lawsuits in Maryland, Mississippi, Alabama and South Carolina.

Small endowments, funding shortfalls and limited access to capital have created inequities that are visible in the aging facilities on many HBCU campuses. Public HBCUs, on average, reported deferred maintenance backlogs of $67 million and private ones of $17 million, according to a 2018 Government Accountability Office report.

Adams has worked to include her infrastructure bill, dubbed Ignite HBCU Excellence, in the spending package. While a few components made it in, a group of 19 HBCU leaders is asking Congress to include more.

In a letter sent Tuesday to Scott and Senate Education Committee Chair Patty Murray (D-Wash.), the group said the IGNITE legislation in its entirety would “dramatically improve” facilities, access to health care, increase high-speed broadband and allow more than 100 HBCUs to provide high-quality research.

“This country has benefited so much from HBCUs. Increase the investment, so we can increase the return,” said Makola M. Abdullah, president of Virginia State University who signed the letter. “In order for us to be able to move forward…we need to make up for the decades of underfunding.”

The White House did not respond to requests for comment on the House bill. At a roundtable discussion with Hampton University students Friday, Vice President Harris reiterated the administration’s support for robust investment in historically Black schools.

“It’s in the best interest of our nation, including our national security, to invest in our HBCUs,” said Harris, a Howard University graduate. “Historically our HBCUs have done extraordinary research work, but over the years some of the facilities have experienced wear and tear and we need to invest in allowing … our HBCUs to upgrade.”