New bipartisan caucus aims to re-energize Capitol Hill support for HBCUs



The past few years have been tough for Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs). Many are facing financial hardships due to a combination of factors such as declining state support, expiration of additional federal funds specifically budgeted to strengthen HBCUs, and increased reliance on federal parent loans which have become harder to obtain.

Fighting for more support has not been an easy task for HBCUs either. The Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) has been instrumental in advocating for additional funding for these institutions, but lack of bipartisan support from outside of the CBC’s membership often limits these efforts. Now, HBCUs appear to be slightly changing tactics.

Last week, U. S. Representatives Alma Adams (D-N.C.) and Bradley Byrne (R-Ala.) launched a new bipartisan HBCU Caucus made up of 40 members of Congress, including 8 republicans and 26 CBC members. There are currently no senators in the HBCU caucus.

“This bipartisan HBCU Caucus is bringing together champions for HBCUs, so that we can make an even bigger impact to ensure their needs are heard in every aspect of policy making and across party lines,” said Congresswoman Adams in a press release. “Having been a professor for 40 years and an administrator at an HBCU; and as an alumnus of an HBCU, I know the impact that these schools have on students, particularly students from underserved communities.”

A number of policy changes over the last few years have threatened HBCUs. In 2009, HBCUs were hit with an $85 million cut to the Strengthening HBCUs Program. In 2011, an update to the Parent PLUS loan program cost HBCUs a total of $155 million in lost tuition revenue and impacted the financial circumstances of nearly 28,000 HBCU students. Also in 2011, the end of summer Pell grant negatively affected many HBCU students.

Recently, HBCU leaders have become more verbal about the lack of federal support for HBCUs and about how little HBCU input weighs in matters that directly impact them. Following a meeting with President Obama in February, members of the CBC and HBCU leaders were left “disappointed and saddened” about the circumstances facing HBCUs.

The fact that many HBCUs have low graduation rates certainly has not helped HBCUs secure funding. During the February meeting, President Obama was critical of the low graduation rates at HBCUS. But such critiques may be shortsighted when considering the specific populations HBCUs serve.

In the national postsecondary dialogue, HBCUs are most often compared to larger, more resourced institutions causing nearly all of the 106 HBCUs to seem sub-par in every aspect. But it’s important to remember that HBCUs typically serve higher numbers of students who are low-income and first-generation; and many of them are underprepared for college-level coursework. Students often require remediation.

After adjusting HBCU graduation rates for factors such as number of Pell Grant recipients and average SAT scores, the Washington Monthly Annual College Guide showed that many HBCUs performed well with the students they served. In fact, 34 HBCUs were ranked in the top 100 of Washington Monthly’s various rankings of national, liberal arts, master’s and baccalaureate colleges and universities. In addition, HBCUs represent only 3 percent of postsecondary institutions, yet they graduate approximately 20 percent of African-American with bachelor’s degrees and 25 percent of African-Americans with degrees in STEM fields.

Exceptional national performance isn’t enough to save some HBCUs from critical budget cuts. Elizabeth City State University (ECSU), an HBCU in Congresswoman Adam’s home state of North Carolina, currently ranks number one among baccalaureate institutions according to the Washington Monthly College Guide. Even though ECSU is doing a good job graduating students, of which 71 percent are low-income, the HBCU was recently on the brink of closure due to proposed state budget cuts and declining enrollment.

Many HBCUs like ECSU have proven that they are able to do more with less, but this practice is not sustainable. As declining state and federal support continue to threaten the existence of HBCUs, the bipartisan HBCU Caucus aims to help these institutions continue to expand access and promote success.