After meetings with the Trump administration last month, leaders of historically black colleges and universities expressed cautious optimism that the increased funding they requested might actually make it into the White House budget. It did not.
Instead, Trump’s first presidential budget released Thursday calls for “maintaining” $492 million in appropriations for HBCUs and minority-serving institutions. Combined discretionary spending for those schools, however, is actually $577 million right now. The White House directed questions about the discrepancy to the Education Department, which did not respond to requests for comment.
There is no mention in the budget of any federal investment in scholarships, technology or campus infrastructure for historically black colleges that leaders requested. And instead of expanding Pell grants for low-income students to cover summer courses as they had asked, the budget raids nearly $4 billion from the program’s reserves.
“Less than three weeks ago, this administration claimed it is a priority to advocate for HBCUs but, after viewing this budget proposal, those calls ring hollow,” Rep. Alama Adams (D-N.C.), a graduate of the largest HBCU, North Carolina A&T State University, said in a statement.
Johnny Taylor, president of the Thurgood Marshall College Fund, said the proposed appropriations could be a lot worse considering the total amount of cuts on the table for the Education Department. He said HBCU advocates had to fight the Obama administration for funding, and stressed that the lines of communication remain open with the current administration.
“This is a process,” Taylor said. “We’re already had phone calls with the administration to say that as we go into the specific lines of this budget, this is where we’d like you to consider increases. This is only stage one.”
There was plenty of skepticism when the Trump administration made overtures toward black school leaders, including from students who questioned whether their college presidents were only being used for photo ops. It didn’t help when Education Secretary Betsy DeVos called historically black institutions “real pioneers when it comes to school choice,” a statement that HBCU advocates said ignored that the schools were a response to racist Jim Crow laws that enforced segregation.
Despite the controversy, HBCU leaders remained focused on funding and held out hope that Trump’s executive order regarding their schools would include some money. It did not. The order, signed in February, directs the White House initiative on HBCUs to operate from the White House instead of the Education Department. While some viewed the move as a signal that the more than 100 historically black schools were a priority for the administration, others said it was purely symbolic without monetary support.
At the time, United Negro College Fund President Michael L. Lomax, who attended the ceremonial signing, lamented the lack of financial support in the order, noting that none of the funding recommendations were included. Nevertheless, he encouraged HBCU advocates to continue to work with the administration and Congress. On Thursday, the UNCF urged the president to reconsider federal funding commitments and sent a letter to the Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney reiterating recommendations made during last month’s meetings.
“President Trump pledged to do more for HBCUs than any other president has done before. However, this budget is not reflective of that sentiment,” Lomax said Thursday. “Without strong federal investments, President Trump’s commitment to HBCUs and the rebuilding of African American communities will be promises unfulfilled.”
Historically black schools educated nearly 300,000 students in 2014, the latest figure available from the National Center for Education Statistics. Education Department data shows that three-quarters of all doctorates awarded to African Americans and 80 percent of black federal judges earned an undergraduate degree at historically black schools.
Though the federal government sets aside money in the budget for historically black colleges, those schools have not benefited from the same level of public funding as other institutions of higher education. The disparity in funding public HBCUs, in particular, has resulted in a series of lawsuits, including a decade-old case in Maryland that is still being fought in the courts.
“You can’t just have a photo op for HBCUs and not create more funding for them,” Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, said on a call with reporters Thursday. “These schools have been under austerity for years, and if they’re going to compete with others, they need more funding.”