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Did Trump Save HBCUs?

President engages in "useful hyperbole" by claiming he rescued historically black colleges, but his administration has made good on some of its promise to support the sector.

January 23, 2020
 
Getty Images/Fabrice Coffrini
Trump at the Davos economic conference

Fact-checkers quickly corrected the record after President Trump, during remarks Monday at the Davos economic conference, declared that he had rescued historically black colleges and universities.

“I saved HBCUs. We saved them,” Trump said. “They were going out, and we saved them.”

The president’s brief comment appeared to refer to bipartisan legislation, dubbed the FUTURE Act, that the U.S. Congress passed in December. The legislation made permanent $255 million in annual STEM funding for minority-serving colleges, including roughly $85 million specifically allocated to HBCUs.

While many of the nation's 102 HBCUs face financial pressure and the funding stream is important to them, it isn't responsible for keeping their doors open.

Congress passed the legislation after a months-long negotiation over several higher education bills. Trump signed the law in December. So, as fact-checkers rightly noted, it’s a stretch at best for the president to claim he single-handedly saved the colleges by signing the law.

However, the White House and the U.S. Department of Education can make legitimate points when touting their support for the sector.

“Things continue on the right path,” said Ivory Toldson, a professor of psychology at Howard University and editor in chief of The Journal of Negro Education. “I can’t say that the administration has been obstructive.”

Some HBCU leaders, for example, point to the March 2018 move by Education Secretary Betsy DeVos to cancel the repayment of more than $300 million in federal relief loans that four historically black colleges took out after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita hit in 2005.

“She was genuinely interested in working on our behalf,” said Walter Kimbrough, president of Dillard University in New Orleans, which received loan relief from DeVos. “That’s their big win” with HBCUs, he said of the administration.

National groups that represent HBCUs have sought to cultivate close ties to the Trump administration. While those efforts have been controversial on HBCU campuses, the sector’s leaders have had some successes.

In particular they point to increases in key funding streams. For example, during the last three fiscal years, federal programs that the United Negro College Fund deems most important to HBCUs have seen a collective increase of more than $200 million in funding, said Lodriguez Murray, UNCF’s senior vice president of public policy and government affairs.

For example, the Strengthening Historically Black Colleges program, which is part of Title III, increased from $245 million in federal support in 2017 to $325 million this fiscal year.

Advocates for black colleges also had been quietly opposed to the Obama-era borrower-defense rule. When DeVos rolled back the rule, provoking sustained condemnation from consumer advocates, the department cited a letter from UNCF that challenged several provisions in the rule.

In addition, Murray cited a successful push for the federal government to provide financial relief through deferments to private HBCUs that saw their enrollments decline due to changes made to the Parent PLUS loan program during the Obama administration -- a decision that infuriated HBCU leaders. Congress and the Trump administration backed the deferments.

HBCU leaders also have pointed to the Trump administration's support of the return of so-called year-round Pell Grants as well as symbolic moves such as the transfer of the White House HBCU Initiative from the Education Department to the administration’s executive offices.

“When these items have gotten to the president’s desk,” Murray said, “the president has signed each and every one.”

‘A Seat at the Table’

Yet Kimbrough and others said the administration’s overall record with HBCUs has been mixed.

The White House under Trump has each year proposed steep cuts to higher education and scientific research. And some of those suggested cuts, such as the 2018 White House proposal to restructure and slash TRIO programs by 40 percent, would disproportionately affect HBCU students. Trump also has sought to eliminate the Strengthening Historically Black Colleges program.

Congress has ignored virtually all the Trump administration’s proposed cuts to higher education. TRIO programs, for example, which feature outreach and student services aimed at low-income and first-generation students, have seen budget increases in recent years.

The administration’s rhetoric also has at times angered students, faculty members and administrators at HBCUs.

Perhaps most notably, DeVos in 2017 upset many for what they said was a tone-deaf statement linking historically black colleges to her signature issue.

“HBCUs are real pioneers when it comes to school choice,” she said in a written statement. “They are living proof that when more options are provided to students, they are afforded greater access and greater quality. Their success has shown that more options help students flourish.”

Beyond his claim this week to have saved HBCUs, the Trump administration appears to have overbilled other purported achievements with HBCUs.

For example, last September Trump said he would lift restrictions on capital financing funds for faith-based HBCUs and seminaries. He said that move would free up funding for more than 40 colleges and seminaries.

But it wasn’t clear at the time if any colleges would receive new federal funding. Kimbrough said he has studied the issue and that Trump’s pledge had no impact on HBCUs.

Trump’s fanciful statements can be “useful hyperbole,” Kimbrough said. “Of course it’s not grounded in reality.”

Toldson said some of the administration’s achievements with HBCUs, including the hurricane loan cancellation, were in the works during the Obama administration.

He also cited federal data showing that HBCUs have seen declines in competitive grants to academic institutions during the Trump administration. Federal science and engineering support to HBCUs has been down for three straight years, the data showed, with a total decline of 17 percent since 2016.

The challenge for HBCU leaders and their advocates, Toldson said, is to balance the objective of having fair representation in Washington while maintaining the sector’s status as a “conscientious entity.”

So far, Murray thinks HBCUs have managed that balancing act.

“These students on our campuses need resources to complete their educations,” said Murray. “Our goal is to make sure our students and our schools have a seat at the table.”

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