In August 2015, Hillary Clinton released a plan to make the first two years of college free at public HBCUs and dedicate $25 billion to support private nonprofit institutions that serve low- and middle-income students.
In practical terms, the plan is only aspirational because presidents don’t unilaterally control the federal budget. The president proposes a budget, Congress passes the budget after negotiating, and the president signs the budget into law.
So how feasible is free HBCU tuition if Clinton becomes president of the United States?
Universal access to higher education is an important progressive edict. However, college tuition has grown exponentially, greatly reducing the number of students who can afford four-year colleges and universities and saddling students with debilitating debt. In an attempt to open access to higher education, on Jan. 9, 2015, President Barack Obama released America’s College Promise (ACP), a plan to make two years of community college free for students in good academic standing.
ACP was controversial and shortsighted to many who believed that HBCUs should have been included in the proposal because of their record of educating low-income and underrepresented students. Eventually the administration conceded, and on July 8, 2015, Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.) and Rep. Bobby Scott (D-Va.) joined Education Secretary Arne Duncan to announce America’s College Promise Act of 2015, which included HBCUs.
Clinton’s “New College Compact,” released one month later, is consistent with strategies that originated from conflict and compromise between the Obama administration and HBCU advocates. The plan would complement, rather than replace, existing programs such as Title III, which provides about $80 million in mandatory funding to HBCUs for capacity-building annually.
How does a “promise” become a “compact”? Theoretically, the precursor to the New College Compact could be implemented as early as 2017. On Feb. 9, Obama requested $60.8 billion in mandatory funding for ACP over the next decade in his fiscal year 2017 budget proposal to Congress.
The funding would create a new partnership with states to make two years of community college free and also provide grants to four-year HBCUs to give free or significantly reduced tuition to new students for their first two years. Obama’s budget will enter a lengthy period of negotiation with Congress, and the final budget will likely look vastly different from the original proposal. There is no indication that the 114th Congress will pass a budget that will fund the ACP.
If ACP does not receive funding and Clinton becomes president, she can help hundreds of thousands of HBCU students defray college costs through astute appointments and dedicated leadership.
To be more specific, first, Clinton, as president, would need to appoint a secretary of education who understands the value of HBCUs and is willing to actively advocate for HBCU funding. Second, she would need to include the plan for the New College Compact in her FY 2018 budget proposal to Congress. Third, the 115th Congress would need to hear about the importance of this proposal frequently, and the proposal would need some measure of bipartisan support. Finally, even after the proposal passes, some level of cooperation with state governments would be necessary for the plan to be fully implemented.
How feasible is free HBCU tuition if Clinton becomes president? The path is hard and obscure, but not impossible.
We could be a generation away from the progressive dream of having universal access to higher education. However, Clinton’s plan is important because it provides substance for advocates and activists to push for HBCUs. The end of the 2016 election will be the beginning of a new fight for HBCU funding. Undergirding the steps necessary to turn the “promise” into a “compact” will be robust grassroots efforts that loudly demand an end to runaway college costs and a clear path to and through the institutions with a history of educating black students.
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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.