How Will Obama Handle HBCUs?


(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.

At a recent discussion sponsored by the National Association for Equal Opportunity in Higher Education, most HBCU presidents considered financial difficulties to be the primary barrier to student retention and graduation. One president discussed successful efforts to identify students of good academic standing — who had been close to graduating — who dropped out of college for financial reasons.


In some cases, offering students less than $500 toward the cost of tuition was enough to re-engage them in the academic process. This is another reason that long-term sustainability of the Pell Grant program is an important federal policy lever for higher education and a key source of support for low-income black students pursuing degrees at HBCUs.

Finally, federal support will be necessary to deal with long-standing administrative challenges at many HBCUs. Through the White House Initiative on HBCUs, the second Obama administration could work with HBCUs to modernize facilities, streamline administrative tasks and enrich student services. Easing tensions related to registration, student aid and student transfers could greatly improve recruitment and retention efforts among HBCUs.


All of these efforts will require not only resolve from the Obama administration but also forethought and innovation among HBCU leadership.

Tell us what you would like to see President Obama do with regard to HBCUs during his second term, using the comment box below.


Ivory A. Toldson, Ph.D., is the president and CEO of the QEM Network, a professor at Howard University and editor-in-chief of the Journal of Negro Education. Previously, Toldson was appointed by President Barack Obama to be the executive director of the White House Initiative on Historically Black Colleges and Universities. He also served as senior research analyst for the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation and contributing education editor for The Root, where he debunked some of the most pervasive myths about African Americans in his Show Me the Numbers column. Follow him on Twitter.