On Partnership with the Federal Government, it is Time for the HBCU Community to Pick a Side

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In a Congress where the talk of the day is fiscal austerity, the HBCU community saw proposed increases in this week’s House-approved Omnibus bill.  Just weeks after many in the community lambasted President Trump’s bill as a way-too-skinny budget proposal which didn’t deliver the goods it promised to HBCUs during the controversial fly-in, the question now is who gets to claim the potential federal funding win.

Perhaps it goes to the White House, which can always claim that its invitation of dozens of HBCU presidents and chancellors set the agenda for Congress to amend its own approach to higher education spending and regulation reform.

Perhaps the unprecedented bipartisanship of HBCU advocacy in Washington D.C. is finally starting to reach its peak, countering growing controversy about conservative tunnel vision on issues involving black and low-income communities nationwide, and disengagement from liberals who for too long received the black vote without transformative policymaking for black colleges.

Or maybe liberals and conservatives both recognize the value of the black vote for the midterm and 2020 elections, with both sides brokering to stretch a pot with too little money to meet promises which will be too tough to keep, all to earn ballots which will be critical in future cycles.

Or maybe it’s the HBCU advocates who deserve the kudos for this preliminary policy victory. With President Trump’s approval numbers still at historic lows, HBCUs remain the the Administration’s least controversial policy story arc. The sights and sounds of HBCU leaders and supporters finessing black colleges as a priority in federal higher education talk is an amazing feat that has been decades in the making, but was expedited by the previous administration’s outright stiff arm of HBCU issues and struggles.

Maybe everybody deserves some of the credit for a bill which may emerge far differently in the Senate, but for now is a solid sign of partnership in a Republican-controlled federal government. So far, the bill expands Pell Grant for year round access for eligible students during the 2017-2018 academic year. Students will be able to receive more than $1,600 during summer courses, which could help more than one million students to complete college faster and to reduce student loan debt.

It earmarks funding for HBCU-essential programs, including $7.5 million in discretionary funding for advanced degree support and tribal colleges and minority serving institutions, $20 million in loan subsidies for the HBCU Capital Financing Program, and $67 million in increased spending for the federal college preparatory programs GEAR Up and TRIO.

Congress also proposed $1.7 billion in funding for the federal work study program, but maintains $1.3 billion in cuts to unused Pell Grant funds, an item which United Negro College Fund President and CEO Michael Lomax raised as a continuing point of emphasis for federal lobbying.

“UNCF has long fought for restoration of summer Pell Grants and increasing the maximum award, and we applaud Congress for making this a reality for most HBCU students who rely on these critical funds. We are discouraged, however, by the $1.3 billion cut to the Pell reserve at a time when HBCU students are saddled with student loan debt. We will continue to make the case that all Pell resources should be used for Pell students.”

TMCF’s advocacy is not over, we are still focusing on the FY’18 budget,” said Thurgood Marshall College Fund President and CEO Johnny Taylor. “TMCF’s direct advocacy with the White House has also ensured year-round Pell funding in the Trump Administration’s FY’18 budget request to be released later this month. It would have been reprehensible for students to have access to year-round Pell, and once again, have it snatched away from them before they complete their college education. This is another win for the entire Black College Community.”

So what’s next for HBCUs and government? It would appear that Congress finally has an interest in working with HBCU community for positive outcomes. How do we leverage that interest for increased capacity in recruiting, retaining and graduating students?

Do we reassess the value of partnerships and outreach, even with people with whom we don’t agree? Or do we go back to the familiar well of liberal support, and hope that they recognize the Democratic party losing ground as the only game in town?

How do we keep up the kind of public advocacy necessary to show local and federal lawmakers that their political futures are directly tied to the future of our schools? How do we make the lasting case that black colleges must be a priority for everyone seeking and hoping to stay in office?

We are either open to working with everyone who shapes policy, allocates money and makes laws, or we aren’t. We have to choose and choose wisely. Because remaining quiet as we did for the last eight years, or forfeiting the chance to be equal opportunists with those approaching our campuses for support may feel good and convenient in the short term, but it will cost HBCUs any real shot at a prosperous long-term future.

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