Leaders from HBCU advocacy organizations will meet tomorrow with members of the US Department of Education to discuss a dramatic change to Title III Part B – an essential funding initiative which helps HBCUs to launch or complete critical projects in campus construction and renovation, academic development, research enhancement and student support.
There’s a long, convoluted story filled with educational and legal jargon serving as the background for this meeting, but in summary, the Department of ED has dialed back a long-standing agreement with HBCUs allowing extensions for five-year grants received through the program.
HBCU Title III coordinators say the measure was suddenly implemented with little notice to campuses and offered improper guidance on ways to encumber funds ahead of rule changes. The federal government says HBCUs did not spend the money in a timely fashion and may have improperly drawn down funds in an effort to skirt established guidelines.
Both things can be true at the same time, but saving a program which awarded $244 million to HBCUs in 2016 can offer mutually beneficial gains to HBCUs and to the Trump Administration if this situation is handled correctly.
As outlandish as it may seem for HBCUs to fail at spending money, leadership turnover on campuses or changes in state legislation on academic program or construction approval could be legitimate reasons why funds went unreserved or unspent. If new governors, new presidents or new rules cast any doubt on how money should be spent, HBCU Title III coordinators generally don’t mess around with how funds are used and described within the feds’ strict reporting standards.
And as dumb as it may seem that the federal government would cut a major program to HBCUs after months of President Donald Trump stepping in one racially-charged controversy after another, the Department also has the direction to find and cut funds ahead of Congress’ upcoming work to revise the Higher Education Act.
With programs like Pell Grant, Perkins Loan and loan forgiveness up for possible amendment, the last thing the agency wants to do is appear as an enemy to HBCUs, and by extension black people, by cutting a sector-specific funding line.
Both sides have to make some concessions with this. HBCUs which have not managed funds responsibly will have to be held to some account, but not through grant-funded employees being laid off or academic or training programs being terminated. The Department of Education should reserve the right to manage public funds in accordance with the public will, but not to the point of race surfacing as a talking point, and at the sacrifice of the same HBCU success stories, it loves to share as a sign of support for black communities.
So much of what the federal government loves about HBCUs is directly supported by Title III. Those powerhouse HBCU STEM programs? The lab equipment was probably purchased with Title III money. The teachers and principals trained to work in at-risk districts, or guided to open charter schools? They probably received professional training grants from HBCUs. The mentoring programs for at-risk youth in metropolitan and rural settings? Probably paid for through Title III.
If not handled correctly, this issue will become the Trump Administration’s version of President Barack Obama’s PLUS Loan debacle. The lack of communication, the bungled response, and Obama’s cold reaction to it all will live forever as a permanent blemish on his revered record with black people.
But unlike Obama, there will be no buffer of blackness for Trump; there will only be major headlines of Trump’s latest flirtation with racism and his perceived attempt to malign black colleges after promising to treat them better than Obama ever did. He will draw the ire of the NAACP, Congressional Black Caucus, April Ryan and every other black adversary real and perceived if the ED missteps on this issue.
But more than these things, HBCUs and the Trump Administration have already put too much work as the 21st-century odd couple to let something like unspent (not stolen or misappropriated) money sour the relationship. For everyone who thought that HBCU presidents were sellouts, who knows if this conversation would even be taking place without 80-plus campus leaders showing up in February for a “photo opp?”
For all the Trump staffers who work so hard in suggesting that the president is not a racist, why not write another chapter in showing that even if he is questionable, his administration is genuine about the partnership with HBCUs in words and deeds?
The credit belongs to orgs like the Thurgood Marshall College Fund, United Negro College Fund and the National Association For Equal Opportunity in Higher Education for being at the table tomorrow morning, and over the last year for engaging with the Trump campaign and now administration; even when doing so proved unpopular and less than fruitful in the eyes of many in the HBCU community.
So for the sake of HBCUs, the work of Congress as it finally moves to redefine higher education spending priorities and an American public fatigued of culture wars and political gamesmanship, we all should hope that tomorrow’s meeting can keep a sensitive yet important matter quiet and productive for black colleges. Both sides need the best of each other to benefit each other and to avoid an unnecessary war of wills with vulnerable campuses at the center of it all.