'HBCUs survived': Historically Black colleges poised to get billions in spending bill

Francesca Chambers
McClatchy Washington Bureau

Washington – Historically Black Colleges and Universities are poised to receive an estimated $3 billion or more in federal funding as part of a spending deal the White House reached with members of Congress, HBCU advocates say.

The amount was less than President Joe Biden had sought, but HBCU advocacy groups expressed relief that it was more than what they were bracing for in the legislation that did not include other parts of the president’s domestic agenda.

A view of Florida A&M University, a public and historically black university, in Tallahassee, Florida, on Monday, December 14, 2020

“Free community college is gone. Family paid leave is gone. And HBCUs survived,” said Victor Santos, director of government relations for the HBCU advocacy group Thurgood Marshall College Fund.

The HBCU funding was part of a total of about $10 billion in the legislation slated for institutions that serve minorities, which also include tribal colleges and universities and schools with large Hispanic student populations.

Biden had initially wanted to provide minority-serving institutions and their students with more than $90 billion in benefits in his jobs and families plans.

His early agenda included $39 billion in tuition subsidies for students at those schools whose parents make less than $125,000 a year. But the president ran into opposition over the total cost of his programs, and the proposed tuition subsidies were left out of the legislation that is making its way through Congress.

Low-income students attending any institution will get as much as $550 more to help pay for tuition if they are part of the Pell grant program. While that is less than half of the increase to the cap that Biden proposed, it would bring the total maximum award per academic year to more than $7,000 a student.

“There’s a lot more work to do over the next three years to help the president bring his promises to bear, but this a very strong start,” said Lodriguez Murray, senior vice president of public policy and government affairs at the United Negro College Fund.

HBCU advocacy groups argued that the current proposal is significantly better than an earlier version of the House bill that gave minority institutions roughly $2 billion to share and made them compete for grants against larger educational institutions, a plan that was met with fierce opposition by the groups.

The presidents of the Thurgood Marshall College Fund and the United Negro College Fund shared their apprehension over the House proposal with Vice President Kamala Harris in a call last Tuesday, the organizations said.

Harris reiterated her support for HBCUs and Biden’s commitment to the institutions, two participants on the call said, and pledged that the administration would work to alleviate the groups’ concerns. The vice president attended Howard University, an HBCU in Washington, D.C.

“The meeting was very, very positive and cordial,” said Thurgood Marshall College Fund President and CEO Harry Williams.

Murray said Harris signaled her strong support for greater funding for HBCUs, telling United Negro College Fund President Michael Lomax during the call, “You had me at hello.”

Harris’ office declined to comment on the details of the conversation and pointed to the spending bill framework that came out Thursday for information on what will be in the legislation.

Cedric Richmond, a senior adviser to Biden, said in an interview that the call with Harris was to acknowledge the vice president’s continued support for HBCUs. He said “no one had to convince” the White House to push for more money.

“The president introduced an aggressive number, an ambitious number, and the House in their work came up with a number that was a little less ambitious,” Richmond said. “But the president kept fighting for it. And as the president laid out the framework, you can tell that this was one of his priorities by how much it went up.”

HBCU advocacy groups said the call with Harris may not be directly responsible for the funding in the new proposal, but it helped to draw attention within the Biden administration to their concerns about the House bill.

“There’s no question in my mind that her influence when it comes to HBCUs played a critical role in supporting our institutions. There’s no question,” Williams said.

Programs such as two years of free community college, which the White House had said would help 11 HBCUs that meet that criteria, were left out of the Democrats’ compromise framework.

Also scaled back was a request from Biden to increase the maximum Pell grant award by $1,400, raising it by $550 instead, and his $20 billion request for upgrades to research infrastructure at HBCUs was lowered.

Land grant institutions, which have agricultural research and education programs, will share $1 billion for construction and modernization efforts, and minority-serving institutions will be awarded $3 billion in competitive grants that they can use to fix up old buildings, build new laboratories and upgrade technology in existing research facilities.

“We have the ability now to try to build upon that,” Santos of TMCF said. “We have a door opener now to try to address this from the federal level.”

Schools will also get a combined total of $6 billion in educational funding that is allotted for institutions that serve minority populations. A longstanding formula determines which institutions can access those benefits. HBCU advocacy groups said their schools will get at least $1.5 billion of that money.

They also expect their schools to get a sizable portion of the money in the bill for competitive research grants and almost all the money set aside for land grant institutions. HBCUs will ultimately receive more than $3 billion in new funding if the spending legislation passes Congress, they said.

“To see funding levels for us go up while others were cut is a statement of priorities, and it’s not something that we take lightly,” Murray said. “And our advocacy is not done. We will continue to fight for our students and our institutions’ priorities until the president’s signature is on the bill making it a law.”