A majority of electoral districts with historically Black colleges and universities were carried by U.S. President Donald Trump in a historically expansive presidential election cycle. But the electorate subgroup that carried President-Elect Joe Biden and Vice-President Elect and HBCU alumna Kamala Harris to victory was powered by HBCUs, and should the centerpiece of the new administration’s higher education agenda.
Black colleges have new capital for financial and political leverage in the White House and halls of Congress; capital bequeathed in large part by Trump through signed legislation, guidance from the U.S. Department of Education, and trickle-down politicking with governors in beet-red states.
HBCUs have even more capital to guard against intended and accidental threats generated by the government, thanks to nonsensical executive orders like Trump’s most recent effort to ban diversity training with federal agencies and associated contractors, which would indirectly destroy HBCUs.
All of that capital cannot be wasted or taken for granted by the Biden-Harris Administration. If returns and exit polling are any real indications, Black folks delivering for the Democratic party is no longer a guarantee; a landmark victory against a historically unpopular incumbent can easily be transformed into transient, interest-driven support for candidates who speak directly to us on specific and realistic terms of support for HBCUs.
There are specifics that this administration must address. Affordability and cultural nurturing are the two primary factors distinguishing HBCUs from better-resourced predominantly white institutions. Eliminating affordability as an advantage would virtually destroy HBCUs already facing rising challenges from PWIs that are working to increase diversity outreach and programming on campus.
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Free college subsidies must be designed so that enrollment at HBCUs, particularly private Black colleges, are not harmed by tuition-free education at public two-year and four-year colleges.
Student-loan debt forgiveness must be constructed so that debt doesn’t shift from owing Sallie Mae in monthly payments to owing Uncle Sam in annual taxes.
Borrower defense must be redesigned so that HBCUs are not lumped together with for-profit colleges and universities as ‘diploma mills’ and punished for context-devoid data on post-graduate earnings or job placement.
Infrastructural investment from the Department of Education should shift from restoring and building facilities to helping Black colleges build or fortify online learning technology, to contend with the realities of the COVID-19 pandemic and the reality of how students of all ages will learn in the future.
And finally, the federal government must play a more aggressive role through its agencies’ oversight and Office of Civil Rights to ensure that states are not violating constitutional statutes in consent decree agreements, program duplication, underfunding, or leadership tampering at public HBCUs.
Commencement and homecoming appearances won’t cut it. Promises of billions and faux-outrage when Congress can’t or won’t pass such packages will not work. For Biden and Harris, the easy part of succeeding Donald Trump is removing racism, incompetence, and scattershot policy.
The hard part? Replicating how those negative traits benefited HBCUs in historic ways.