Tracy A. Woodward/The Washington Post via Getty Images

For weeks, HBCU presidents, students and supporters of historically black colleges and universities have been sounding the alarm, concerned that the deficit-reducing congressional "super committee" was targeting federal funding for HBCUs for drastic cuts. In the end, the super committee couldn't agree on a list of cuts. Does that mean that HBCUs are home free?

Not a chance. HBCUs could still lose more than $20 million per year in federal support through across-the-board cuts triggered by the super committee's failure, unless a new deal is struck. Or they could lose as much as $85 million per year through the normal appropriations process through which Congress decides how federal programs get funded. Either way, HBCUs are still on the Washington chopping block.

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It's hard to understand. This time in history should be the HBCUs' season. They produce the globally competitive college graduates of color that a country with a population headed toward majority-minority needs. The institutions are powerful economic engines in a frail economy. They help to level the playing field in a nation concerned about income inequality.

The last six presidents, Republicans and Democrats alike, have supported HBCUs. A succession of Congresses, controlled by Democrats and Republicans alike, have invested in HBCUs by voting for federal support under Title III, Part B, "Strengthening Historically Black Colleges and Universities," of the Higher Education Act. 

But now, just when the country needs HBCUs the most, many in Congress want to slash the federal support HBCUs receive by more than a third — $85 million — even if it means slashing HBCUs' contribution to the country's economic and social health. 

Ready to Fight

But HBCUs are used to adversity. And they are used to fighting back. HBCU presidents have made repeated trips to Capitol Hill to make their case and talked to lawmakers in the states and districts they represent. And three organizations that represent HBCUs — the National Association for Equal Opportunity in Higher Education, the Thurgood Marshall College Fund and the United Negro College Fund — have banded together to sound the alarm and rally HBCU alumni, students, faculty, staff and other supporters to express their support to their hometown members of Congress. HBCU backers can go to UNCF.org/advocacy and click on "Take Action" to email their views to their representatives in the House and Senate.

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This needs to go at the top of the "Must do — now!" list of everyone who cares about HBCUs. Members of Congress are famous for listening to voices from "back home" — the voices, in other words, of those who re-elect them, or don't. They need to hear our voices, loud and clear. 

For years, HBCUs have been there for us and our community when we needed them. Now they — and the students who are getting their education today — need us. Take five minutes to go online and send Washington a message.

Needed Now More Than Ever

The contributions HBCUs make are well-documented and track closely with national needs. At a time when individual businesses and the American economy need a reliable pipeline of college-educated workers to stay competitive in the global economy, HBCUs produce 47,000 college graduates every year.

At a time when the American population is trending toward majority-minority ethnic balance, HBCUs have a decades-long track record of enrolling and graduating students of color. Some join the workforce right after graduation. Many enter graduate school, on their way to receiving doctoral degrees in the most demanding — and most in-demand — disciplines that graduate schools have to offer.

When the National Science Foundation traced the undergraduate backgrounds of African-American Ph.D. recipients in science and engineering, for example, they found that of the top 10 institutions producing doctorate-bound undergraduates, eight — the first eight — were all HBCUs, ahead of elite East Coast colleges and flagship state universities.

Who are HBCU graduates? You may recognize some of their names. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. graduated from an HBCU. So did Brown University President Ruth Simmons, U.S. Surgeon General Regina Benjamin, congressman and civil rights pioneer John Lewis and film director Spike Lee.

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HBCUs have also tackled the national challenge of economic inequality, which has been increasingly visible because of the Occupy demonstrations around the country. The prestigious Washington Monthly College Guide ranks colleges by their efforts to increase economic mobility. HBCUs are ranked near the top. One HBCU — Spelman College in Atlanta, for example — occupied the top ranking in social mobility among 250 liberal arts colleges; another HBCU, Bennett College for Women in Greensboro, N.C., was ranked second. Two more HBCUs were ranked in the top 20.

Let's Do the Math

In an economy struggling for traction, HBCUs are local and regional economic engines. Department of Education statistics show that HBCUs are responsible for more than 180,000 jobs (pdf). Based on that data, the institutions' total nationwide economic impact is $13 billion, according to the UNCF's adjustments for inflation. If HBCUs were a company, they would be in the top half of the Fortune 500.

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Do we really want, in the tough economy through which we are struggling, to jeopardize so many promising careers, so many jobs and so much economic impact?

And for what? The savings gained from these cuts would be minimal. The $85 million in cuts that House appropriators want adds up to only 52 cents per man, woman and child living in the states where HBCUs are located.

But even that lopsided cost-benefit ratio doesn't exhaust the list of what is wrong with cutting federal support for HBCUs. The increasing cost of college, and the debt that graduates are saddled with, have become a national concern. But HBCU tuition is typically lower than tuition at other institutions.

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For example, the tuition at UNCF's 38-member colleges and universities averages approximately 30 percent less than tuition at comparable non-HBCU institutions. So HBCUs provide not only an affordable education to more than 300,000 students every year; they also provide a model for other colleges and universities for how they, too, can provide a good education for tuition that their students can afford.

The financial bottom line? HBCUs produce college graduates who earn twice what their high school-only counterparts make, and thus pay more in taxes to federal and state governments, reducing budget deficits. HBCUs are engines of regional and local economies.

Their employees and the employees of the companies with which they do business pay taxes — reducing the budget deficit. HBCU graduates are part of the college-educated workforce that American employers need to increase profits, on which they pay — that's right — taxes that reduce the budget deficit.

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Education isn't an expense. It's an investment in a college-educated workforce that can hold its own in the global economy. It's an investment in the next generation of American families and the communities they live in. And it's an investment in helping our country live up to the ideal embodied in UNCF's famous motto, "A mind is a terrible thing to waste."

To support HBCUs, the students who attend them and the communities that depend on them, go to UNCF.org/advocacy.

Michael Lomax is president and CEO of UNCF (the United Negro College Fund). He is a contributing editor for The Root.