HBCU PARTNERS Act Requires More Than Plans to Make for Successful Federal Engagement

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Members of the United States Congress passed the HBCU Propelling Agency Relationships Towards a New Era of Results for Students (PARTNERS) Act this week, a bill designed to make historically Black institutions more visible and fund-worthy IN among agencies across the federal government.

The language of the bill is comprised of talking points for which HBCU advocates and executives have been lobbying for decades; better connections with the White House and more definitive guidelines on how federal agencies can better extend opportunities to HBCUs, market them and report on their success.

No bill is perfect or leaves any lawmaker or lobbyist completely satisfied. But while the PARTNERS Act creates a more solid vision of federal accountability on HBCUs, the essence of the legislation appears is not much more than what is currently in place for success metrics on HBCU engagement.

Here are the guts of what the bill requires agencies to do in partnership with HBCUs:

Submitting Agency Plans

Not later than February 1 of each year, the head of each applicable agency shall submit to the Secretary, the Executive Director, the Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions of the Senate, the Committee on Education and Labor of the House of Representatives, and the President’s Board of Advisors an annual Agency Plan describing efforts to strengthen the capacity of HBCUs to participate or be eligible to participate in the programs and initiatives under the jurisdiction of such applicable agency as described in subsection (a)(1)(B).

Agency Plan Content

Where appropriate, each Agency Plan shall include—

(1) a description of how the applicable agency intends to increase the capacity of HBCUs to compete effectively for grants, contracts, or cooperative agreements;

(2) an identification of Federal programs and initiatives under the jurisdiction of the applicable agency in which HBCUs are underrepresented;

(3) an outline of proposed efforts to improve HBCUs’ participation in such programs and initiatives;

(4) a description of any progress made towards advancing or achieving goals and efforts from previous Agency Plans submitted under this section by such applicable agency;

(5) a description of how the applicable agency plans to encourage public-sector, private-sector, and community involvement to improve the capacity of HBCUs to compete effectively for grants, contracts, or cooperative agreements, and to participate in programs and initiatives under the jurisdiction of such agency;

(6) an identification of programs and initiatives not listed in a previous Agency Plan in which an HBCU may participate;

(7) any other information the applicable agency determines is relevant to promoting opportunities to fund, partner, contract, or otherwise interact with HBCUs; and

(8) any additional criteria established by the Secretary or the White House Initiative.

Agency Engagement

To help fulfill the objectives of the Agency Plans, the head of each applicable agency—

(1) shall provide, as appropriate, technical assistance and information to the Executive Director to enhance communication with HBCUs concerning the applicable agency’s—

(A) programs and initiatives described in subsection (d)(2); and

(B) the preparation of applications or proposals for grants, contracts, or cooperative agreements; and

(2) shall appoint a senior official to report directly to the agency head on the applicable agency’s progress under this section.

What’s missing from this bill? How to mandate that the language translates into action that counts for something more than the act of submitting reports.

The White House Initiative on HBCUs annually solicits reports from each federal agency asking it to provide details on how it engages historically Black institutions, with the last HBCU priorities report being published in 2019.

In 55 pages, the common thread among most responding agencies is to build more partnerships with HBCUs that promote training, job opportunities for graduates, profile current employees with HBCU backgrounds, or expose more funding opportunities to the institutions.

Prior to that, similar reports to the WHI were sporadic in nature, but all followed the same narrative of “we have to do better exposing opportunities to HBCUs.”

Results of Participation of Historically Black Colleges and Universities in Federal Programs:

In the best of years, recent reports outlined the amount of money committed from each agency to HBCU support. In 2008, for example, we discovered that the government awarded more than $2.6 billion to Black institutions for scholarships and tuition assistance.

While 99% of that funding came from the U.S. Department of Education, the HBCU awards accounted for just 2% of its total funding for the year, while other agencies like the U.S. Departments of Agriculture, Energy, Justice, and Transportation, each with smaller budgets for tuition assistance, exceeded more than 35% in committed funds to HBCUs.

Five years later, data shows an increase in total tuition assistance funding to HBCUs from $2.6 billion to $4.2 billion, but that none of the agencies awarded percentages of this funding above 30%.

Here’s a look at funds associated with training support at HBCUs supported by the various agencies from the same reporting year:

In this section, three agencies were above 50% of funding being granted to Black colleges, and seven overall were above 5% of total funding apportionment; a long-requested aspirational funding target from HBCUs presidents for federal support in research and development, student support, and technical assistance.

The percentages are key in representing how much engagement occurs between the HBCU sector and the federal government. The slice of the pie matters in showcasing the level of engagement or attention among the agencies towards HBCUs, but even this doesn’t offer insight into how or why the government and the sector are building or losing ground in partnerships from one budget cycle to the next.

Now a bill is being celebrated as a more detailed ask for more of the same. There is no foundational request for each agency to hire personnel as liaisons or monitors for partnerships with HBCUs or even minority-serving institutions, and no mandated floors or ceilings for funding going to support the schools.

Perhaps more importantly, it does not require the HBCUs themselves to participate in the data collection or reporting; an essential element in ensuring that the task of relaying the federal HBCU engagement narrative doesn’t fall to one person or a small group of people in each agency. It does not protect HBCU engagement data from being at the discretion of those charged to actually do the reports and does not account for departures or reassignments of those people or the data and tasks they could fail to pass along to their successors.

A college intern can prepare a report on the legacy intentions of each agency to do better with HBCUs, but who speaks to the policy and mandates the practice of the real thing? Under this bill, it is not the agencies, Congress, or the White House — and the question of why this keeps happening regardless of who is in charge is something worth reporting on.