Don’t Declare White House Victory For HBCUs Yet

Since President Trump released the skinny budget, there was a great deal of anticipation about what the full budget would propose. Those following him over the course of his campaign knew what his priorities were: defense spending, repealing Obamacare, and “The Wall.” HBCUs were never part of the campaign, only mentioned in his October 2016 speech in Charlotte as part of an idea framed as a new deal for Black America. This isn’t an indictment; few presidential candidates have mentioned HBCUs as part of their campaign strategy. Hillary Clinton was a singularly unique figure to not only mention them, but promise a $25 billion investment.

Recently, the full budget was released. Almost unanimously, the higher education community sounded the alarm that this proposed budget would harm students. The president of the American Association of State Colleges and Universities Dr. Muriel Howard wrote “I am sorry to say that the numbers released today actually move in the wrong direction by increasing the non-defense cuts to $57 billion and proposing significant additional losses of mandatory benefits for students.” American Council on Education President Molly Corbett Broad wrote “If enacted, these reductions would have a devastating impact on the United States’ long-term economic growth and seriously undermine economic opportunity for many low- and middle-income Americans.”

Association of Public and Land-grant Universities President Peter McPherson stated “The proposed cuts to higher education… would also widen the gap of college access and success among low-income, first generation students and more affluent ones. The elimination of Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grants along with significant reductions in Work-Study, TRIO, and GEAR UP would be the equivalent of erecting concrete barriers in the path of some of the neediest students who aspire to earn a college degree.” And Dr. Michael L. Lomax, UNCF president and CEO wrote “Just two weeks ago, after questioning the constitutionality of a long-standing federal HBCU program, President Trump announced his ‘unwavering support’ for HBCUs. Unfortunately, that support did not translate into increased federal investments in HBCUs… and, in fact, the proposed budget would cut federal financial aid lifelines that thousands of HBCU students depend on to attend college and earn their degrees.”

These associations were joined by many others, including the Association of Governing Boards, the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities, the Institute for Higher Education Policy, and the Education Trust, now led by past Secretary of Education Dr. John King. Higher education is almost unanimously worried about this budget.

But several recent articles have confused people, with titles like “Budget keeps funds for black colleges” and “Trump plan maintains funding for HBCUs.” Some note that the budget increases spending for charter schools, preserves HBCU funding, and reinstates year-round Pell. But it is more nuanced than this. Very few HBCUs have charter schools (less than 10), and there is little evidence these charters have provided a strong pipeline for the schools. Preserving of HBCU funding refers to the discretionary Title IIIB program for strengthening HBCUs as well as for graduate HBCUs. There was actually an increase for the HBCU capital finance program which provides low interest loans, but no money for HBCU endowment challenge grants.

While the summer Pell grant was approved for this current budget, there was a deal to restore them in summer of 2016 with the House finally getting on board recently. What most miss is that the budget actually freezes Pell for a decade, meaning a program already at a 40 year low in purchasing power will not grow, so Pell will pay for less and less each year. Plus, as the NAFEO president pointed out recently, the Department of Education will not release guidance for funding summer Pell until July 1st, too late for most to use this year.

These articles don’t emphasize the key losses. SEOG is wiped out. Work study sliced in half. Perkins loan eliminated. Rescinding of the public service loan program. Change to subsidized student loan program which will increase student loan burden.

So what does this really mean? It means that we have to actively engage members of Congress to save student aid. Over the past few weeks many people have begun sharing information about the #SaveStudentAid campaign. These campaigns are great opportunities for engagement, but unfortunately there isn’t always active involvement from the HBCU community when student aid is more important to us.

Let me make it plain.

Thirty-five percent of all college students are Pell Grant eligible. Almost 70% of HBCUs are eligible. The proposed cuts will disproportionately harm HBCU students, period. So now is time to act, not just tweet. I normally would say this is what you should do, but this is serious.

This is what you must do.

Contact your Senator and your Representative. Tell them not to support the cuts to student aid. Remind them that these cuts will make college more expensive for low-income students if they refuse to adjust Pell for inflation, slash work study in half, shorten loan repayment terms, and eliminate both SEOG and Perkins loans.

Ask you institution to provide the number of students that will be harmed by these cuts to make your point. Find out if your institution will lose part of its TRIO or Gear Up program and if you benefitted from those programs explain how so.

The 2018 elections will be contested. Those who represent us in Washington must understand that there will be consequences if they don’t support programs that benefit their constituents. People attending those town hall meetings show us the power of their voices; it is time for HBCU students, alumni and supporters to become just as vocal about our issues (which also include health care, rollback of civil rights protections, and voter suppression). HBCUs are anchor institutions in the village; we cannot be silent on those attacks either.

Nothing has been won. Go to work.

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