How Will Obama Handle HBCUs?

As we count down the days to a second term, a look at the president's record on black colleges.

(The Root) — Between now and the inauguration on Jan. 21, The Root will be taking a daily look at the president’s record on a number of policy issues, including his first-term accomplishments and what many Americans hope to see him accomplish in a second term. Today: the war on drugs. See previous postings in this series here.

Background: Today 105 historically black colleges and universities educate 135,722 male and 238,685 female students across the United States, according to the most recent data from the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System. Historically, HBCUs have played a vital role in providing educational opportunities for traditionally underrepresented groups. Since the 1830s, they have been instrumental in preparing black people to make significant contributions to the economic, intellectual and cultural landscape of the nation.

Research demonstrates that HBCU graduates enjoy greater financial success in their careers, and U.S. rankings consistently show that HBCUs are among the top producers of students who continue their educations through graduate and professional schools. My own research (pdf) indicates that for black students, HBCUs are clearly superior to predominantly white institutions for promoting positive student-faculty relationships and students’ sense of belonging among science, technology, engineering and mathematics majors.  

Notwithstanding those benefits, many HBCUs have suffered financially because of declining enrollment, the economic recession and other fiscal challenges. Federal investment in HBCUs is critical for them to realize their respective missions; achieve long-term financial stability; and develop programs, policies and practices that promote recruitment, retention and graduation among the black students they so diligently serve.

First-term accomplishments: On Feb. 26, 2010, President Barack Obama signed an executive order to continue the White House Initiative on Historically Black Colleges and Universities. Later that year, in September, President Obama affirmed the role that HBCUs must play to help him achieve his goal of having the United States lead the world in percentage of college graduates by 2020. He also reiterated his commitment to HBCUs by announcing his plans to increase spending on HBCUs by $850 million over the next 10 years.

William Jawando of the White House Office of Public Engagement also noted that President Obama’s 2011 budget called for an annual increase in spending on Pell Grants — important because 50 percent of HBCU students qualify for Pell Grants. Other federal accomplishments that will benefit HBCUs include continuing support for TRIO programs that target disadvantaged students and an executive order establishing the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for African Americans.

Second-term hopes: During President Obama’s second term, it will take federal action for HBCUs to strengthen efforts to recruit, retain and graduate larger numbers of students. For recruitment, it will be essential for the White House Initiative on HBCUs to work closely with the new White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for African Americans in order to bolster efforts to prepare the 8,550,344 black children currently enrolled in kindergarten through the 12th grade in the U.S.

From a policy standpoint, the federal government needs to address the fiduciary responsibility of states to provide public secondary-educational options that meet the basic academic requirements of their institutions of higher education, including public HBCUs. Coordinated efforts between the two White House initiatives could also address the growing trend among guidance counselors at predominantly black high schools to advise qualified students to attend community colleges, neglecting HBCUs.

From a funding perspective, money allocated to HBCUs should be tied to deliverables that foster greater college persistence among black students. Specifically, through budget allocations to the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health, competitive awards should be expanded for HBCU faculty members who actively engage in research with students. Federal appropriations for programs targeting first-generation college students, such as the Ronald E. McNair Postbaccalaureate Achievement Program, are also vital to administration objectives.