History Lesson: Sen. Elizabeth Warren Breaks Down Why Her $50 Billion Plan to Fund HBCUs Is Very Necessary

Democratic presidential candidate U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) speaks at the National Forum on Wages and Working People: Creating an Economy That Works for All at Enclave on April 27, 2019 in Las Vegas.
Photo: Ethan Miller (Getty Images)

Last week, 2020 presidential candidate and U.S Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) outlined a radical education plan that addresses the racial and socioeconomic disparities in our higher education system. Her plan includes tuition and non-tuition-related solutions such as a minimum $50 billion federal fund for HBCUs, a $100 million investment in Pell Grants, and prohibiting public colleges from considering an applicants citizenship and criminal history during the admission process. If implemented, this plan would be a significant and historic investment in disenfranchised students and communities across the country.

Nearly half of African-American students who borrowed money defaulted on their loans, according to a recent study. In 2017, the U.S. Department of Education issued a report stating black students with a college degree would owe more than their original student loan balance after 12 years. The report revealed a direct correlation between race and student loans, as well as the need for a solution that addresses those disparities in future education policy. For generations, black students have had to overcome institutionalized and structural barriers to obtain a college degree, only to be sent into a marginalized economy with massive debt that sets them even further behind than their skin color or zip code.

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Warren’s detailed plan addresses racial and socioeconomic disparities to improve the higher education system with five potential policy changes that would be funded by a 2% tax on families earning $50 million income or higher:

  • Create a minimum $50 billion fund for Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) and Minority-Serving Institutions (MSIs).
  • Additional federal funding for states that demonstrate substantial improvement in enrollment and graduation rates for lower-income students and students of color.
  • Ban for-profit colleges from receiving any federal dollars while targeting lower-income students, service members, and students of color and leaving them saddled with debt.
  • Require public college audits that identify issues that create shortfalls and propose steps to improve those rates.
  • Prohibit public colleges from considering citizenship status or criminal history in admissions decisions. (Read more about her plan here.)

In an interview with The Root, Sen. Warren said, “HBCUs have had to do way more with way less, and it is wrong. We have got to face racial discrimination in our education system head on.” Here’s what else she had to say on the topic of HBCUs:

The Root: It’s interesting you’ve taken such an early position on higher education funding. Prior administrations have failed to financially and administratively prioritize HBCU funding. Why address this now as a presidential candidate rather than as a U.S. senator?

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Elizabeth Warren: As a senator, I have made the inequality in our education system a priority, including helping to secure a 14% increase in federal funding for HBCUs. I’m raising this now as a part of the presidential campaign because we need to confront the legacy of racial discrimination in higher education head on.

For decades, black Americans were kept out of higher education because our government sponsored discrimination—and at the same time, the federal and state government were pouring money into colleges that served white students. With the financial assistance of the black community, from black churches and black leaders, HBCUs educated generations of black students often who were the first in their family to go to college and often became leaders in the black community. But HBCUs have never had the same type of access to public funds as other schools, and the persistent racial wealth gap meant that they never had the large number of rich alumni to make big donations.

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HBCUs have had to do more with less, and it is wrong. We need to call out the discrimination that led us to this point, and we need to live up to our obligations there—and that means we need to start investing in these institutions the way we should have been doing for the past hundred years.

TR: According to the Trump administration’s “America First” budget, HBCUs currently receive around $492 million in federal funds, which is the same amount previously allocated by prior administrations. Your proposed plan for $50 billion of funding would be a significant, historic increase. How do you plan to allocate those funds?

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EW: Let me just say that this fund would have a minimum amount of $50 billion. Under this plan, the U.S Department of Education would have the power to increase that funding as needed to make sure that HBCUs can do the same amount of spending as other equivalent colleges. I want to make sure that people know that this is about equality.

Now the colleges themselves will determine what they want to do with the money because they know where the need is the greatest and how to best apply the funds. They [HBCUs] would just apply for the money, and describe how they intend to use it.

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TR: Where would the funding be sourced from and will other education programs be adjusted in order to make this program a priority?

EW: No other education programs will be cut to provide this funding. This historic investment in HBCUs will be funded by my Ultra Millionaire Tax, which is just a small 2% tax on fortunes over $50 million.

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That’s about 75,000 of the wealthiest families in this country. That’s about 1% of the 1%, and that 2% tax would give us the resources for this program. We have the money, we just need the political will to get it done.

TR: How would you plan to work across the aisle with a Republican-controlled Senate?

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EW: Let’s start with the fact that HBCUs play a critical role in both red states and blue states. This shouldn’t be about politics. We need to support HBCUs, and one of the best ways we can do that is with real federal money. Now look, I disagree with my Republican colleagues on a whole lot of things, but in the areas where we do agree, I’ve been able to work together with them.

TR: What would you like young black and brown students, voters, educators and parents across the country to know about you?

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EW: Oh that’s a great question! You know, I guess it would be...I pretty much made it my life’s work trying to figure out why all working families are having such a hard time. Why is it that America’s middle class is getting smaller and why are Americans having such a hard time trying to build a future?

I dropped out of college when I was 19 [to get married], and I got my second chance at a commuter college that cost $50 a semester—something that I could pay for on a part-time waitressing gig. I’ve missed opportunities, but because of that second chance, I got a chance to become a special needs teacher, a law professor and now a U.S senator running for president. That chance doesn’t exist today, and I’m going to try to recreate opportunity, not just for a select few, but for every single person.

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About the author

Janet Watson

Janet Watson was born July 24th, 1933, when little colored girls were prohibited from writing or voting. Her granddaughter Ericka Claudio, political advocate and strategist, writes to honor her name.