Aude Guerrucci-Pool/Getty Images

On Tuesday, when President Donald Trump signed the Presidential Executive Order on the White House Initiative to Promote Excellence and Innovation at Historically Black Colleges and Universities, black college leaders and advocates were hoping for two things: more funding for HBCUs and a higher profile for the initiative in the White House.

They received half their wish.

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Under President Barack Obama, the White House Initiative on Historically Black Colleges and Universities was housed within the Department of Education and reported to the senior adviser to the president, the secretary of education and the undersecretary of education. Under Trump’s executive order, the initiative now will be housed in the Executive Office of the President. Trump will also appoint a board of advisers who will recommend executive-level priorities for HBCUs and an executive director who will oversee the office’s administrative functions.

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Supporters believe that moving the WHI-HBCUs from the Department of Education to the White House will strengthen the administrative authority of the initiative and elevate the status of the executive director. However, the move could also have the unintended consequence of prioritizing the political functions of the office (e.g., clarifying Trump’s positions on HBCUs and other higher education issues) over the very important administrative functions (e.g., creating and locating opportunities for HBCUs across the federal government).

Additionally, moving the WHI-HBCUs from the Department of Education to the White House alters the strategic position of the initiative. The Department of Education is responsible for the distribution of approximately $700 million to HBCUs annually from grants, contracts and appropriations, and more than $3 billion annually in student aid. The Office of the President is not directly responsible for any revenue to HBCUs.

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Many HBCU advocates who engaged with Trump’s administration before the signing were hoping that the order would have an “aspirational goal,” which would ask each federal department and/or agency to award no less than 5 percent of all federal grants set aside for institutions of higher education to HBCUs. But Trump’s order didn’t include that goal.

However, the executive director, through ongoing meetings with elected officials, government executives, HBCU leaders and advocacy groups, could play a pivotal role in setting a strategic agenda for the HBCU funding. (As the last permanent executive director for WHI-HBCUs under Obama, I know firsthand how the executive director could play a pivotal role in setting a strategic funding agenda.) The director should be a clear and consistent communicator and should make two points very clear:

  1. All HBCUs are vital. Today there are three times as many black students in higher education as there were in 1990. Therefore, either the nation needs three times as many HBCUs or the existing HBCUs should be three times larger.
  2. The initiative’s primary job is to find resources for HBCUs. The executive director is not in the best position to tell HBCU presidents how to run their institutions. The director is in the best position to help HBCU presidents locate resources within the federal government help them run their institutions better.

Identifying and developing a relationship with liaisons across the federal agencies is critical to the success of the initiative. HBCU liaisons work with the WHI-HBCUs to organize efforts to strengthen the capacity of HBCUs through increased participation in appropriate federal programs and initiatives. At a minimum, HBCU liaisons report data to the WHI-HBCUs on HBCU participation in their respective grant and contracting portfolios and submit plans to increase HBCU participation. However, an effective initiative director can motivate the liaison to do more, such as host webinars on HBCU funding, co-author blogs with the WHI-HBCUs and participate in campus visits.

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Other than changing the location of the WHI-HBCUs, Trump’s executive order is very similar to Obama’s executive order No. 13532. Both orders specify reporting and planning requirements to federal agencies without setting a specific goal for funding.

The success of Trump’s executive order is tied to the funding that HBCUs receive from the federal government during his tenure. The federal government is responsible for nearly $5 billion of revenue annually to 101 HBCUs that qualify for federal support.

Across every indicator of federal support, revenue to HBCUs increased while Obama was in office. HBCUs received nearly $3 billion more from federal grants, contracts and appropriations during Obama’s first six years in office (2009-2014) than they did in President George W. Bush’s last six years in office (2003-2008). HBCUs can continue to experience increases in revenue from the federal government while Trump is in office if the executive director aggressively enforces the executive order and creates innovative ways to connect HBCUs to funding opportunities.

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Trump’s executive order has the raw material to maintain the status quo of federal-government support to HBCUs. However, proposed budget cuts to nondefense federal agencies—especially the departments of Education and of Health and Human Services and the National Science Foundation, which account for hundreds of millions of dollars in annual revenue to HBCUs—could weaken the capacity of the executive order.

Further, without an aspirational goal, the most important lever for HBCU funding will be Trump’s ability and willingness to appoint officials across the federal agencies who are sensitive to the needs of HBCUs. Also important will be the executive director’s ability to organize liaisons across the federal government to implement plans to increase funding to HBCUs that they are legally required to produce.