Senate row threatens funding for US black colleges

Weeks after Trump vow to strengthen HBCUs, key Republican senator causes row by tying funding to wider HE legislation

September 25, 2019
Source: Getty

A plea from across US higher education to finance the nation’s historically black colleges is near stalemate after a key senator demanded Congress also approve a series of other college-related measures.

The lawmaker, Senator Lamar Alexander, a Republican chairing the Senate's education committee, has long hoped to convince Congress to pass a comprehensive overhaul of higher education legislation before he retires next year.

But with that effort again proving complex, and with a separate bill to provide the historically black colleges and other minority-serving institutions with $255 million (£203 million) in annual federal funding making progress, Senator Alexander is now insisting that key parts of the bills be joined together.

His tactic is roiling a relatively rare bipartisan alliance in Congress while demonstrating anew that the nation's 101 historically black colleges and universities – which count on government money for most of their operating revenue – often find it easier to be praised by politicians than be reliably funded by them.

Senator Alexander, in outlining his plan on 19 September, said he would block a bill passed earlier in the week by the House of Representatives – with broad support from across US higher education – to give the historically black colleges and other minority-serving institutions their $255 million annual federal allocation for the next two years.

In its place, he insisted that the House and Senate approve a bill that would make permanent the federal payment – of which about $85 million is specifically for historically black colleges – and would include key elements of his overall higher education policy plan.

Additional provisions sought by Senator Alexander would increase the value of the Pell Grant – the main federal subsidy for the nation's low-income college students – while expanding its eligibility to a quarter-million new students. His plan also would allow the use of Pell in prison education and non-college job training programmes, and simplify the standard student federal aid eligibility questionnaire.

Many leading Democrats support such provisions, as many education-related policy debates tend to be an escape from the deep partisan divisions typically encountered in Washington.

But the top Democrat on the education panel, Senator Patty Murray, warned that Senator Alexander was risking the well-being of historically black institutions by raising the possibility that the House bill providing the $255 million allocation would not win Senate approval by the time the current fiscal year ends on 30 September.

Historically black colleges and universities are perpetually caught in financial stress, as they play major roles in fulfilling promises often heard across US higher education to serve low-income and minority students. They therefore rely on government money to cover some 54 per cent of their income, and the $225 million boost dating to the Obama administration is a key supplement to even larger sums of federal support including research grants and federal aid to students.

President Donald Trump on 10 September addressed the annual National Historically Black Colleges and Universities Conference in Washington, where – after three years of proposing budgets that would sharply reduce resources for such institutions – he spoke of his “fierce dedication to strengthening HBCUs”.

Then, for the major policy component of his speech, Mr Trump promised that historically black colleges and universities with a religious affiliation will no longer be banned from using federal money for capital projects. The White House, however, did not make clear how many dollars and how many institutions that would affect, and leaders of the historically black institutions later acknowledged scepticism.

The Trump administration, for all its rhetorical embrace of historically black colleges, has done little if anything to actually help them, said Ben Miller, the vice-president for secondary education at the Center for American Progress. Its announcement about religious institutions “is a bit of a red herring – most of the religious colleges could already get that money, just not for religious functions,” he added.

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