If Republicans Want to Reach Out to HBCUs, Step One is Protecting Pell Grants

We played around with Obama; perhaps now we can legitimately talk about how to save some of these schools.

We played around with Obama; perhaps now we can legitimately talk about how to save some of these schools.

Lois Dickson Rice, the woman who changed the history of American higher education through her advocacy for tuition support to poor families, died earlier this month at the age of 83.

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Chances are that Rice never imagined that her efforts to give poor students a chance at a college education, would leave behind a legacy that has become the core reason that a majority of historically black colleges and universities exist today.

The federal Pell Grant program will this year celebrate 45 years of changing the narrative for millions of families which, without it, would not have been able to break the cycle of poverty by sending their children to college for degrees and onto rewarding careers.

But with costs increasing beyond the measure of what Pell Grants can subsidize, and more students avoiding college for concerns about the actual value of a college degree in trying to get a job, there is concern that the impact of the Pell Grant could be losing its value, and may be altogether reconsidered under conservative leadership in Congress and the White House.

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The reality has HBCU advocates and elected officials scrambling to find a solution, because they all know that HBCUs are one cabinet appointment or one executive order away from oblivion, which could disintegrate any prospects for black support of Republican candidates in the mid-term elections.

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The Thurgood Marshall College Fund is continuing its conservative goodwill tour next month, inviting lawmakers and HBCU presidents for a day-long session to broker visions for partnership in the post-Obama era, which didn’t turn out so well for black colleges over the course of eight years.

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They’ll likely talk about partnerships with federal agencies to support scholarship and workforce development programs to HBCUs, and potential corporate support opportunities. Those things are nice to say, and they will go nowhere beyond that meeting.

But what can go somewhere is getting a commitment from lawmakers about stability and expansion of the Pell Grant program.

Without Pell, Several Private HBCUs Will Close.

There are two distinctly growing narratives within higher education; the first is that schools with fewer than 1,000 students should close or consolidate with other schools, and the second is that colleges would be better suited by admitting poor (Pell Grant eligible) students.

A large number of HBCUs find themselves on the axis of these two philosophies, particularly private institutions which only receive non-tuition revenues from auxiliary projects and research contracts and grants from state and federal resources.

Many of the schools that are in financial jeopardy, or which would be in danger with any changes to Pell awards or student eligibility, could not remain open with the revenue these grants provide. While the Department of Education’s databases generally aren’t trustworthy, for the sake of listing, take a look at the HBCUs federally listed as having fewer than 1,000 students, and the amount of federal money they received last year.

Fisk University — $968,405
Pell Grant — $929,701

Wilberforce University — $6,466,471
Pell Grant — $2,376,141

Paul Quinn College — $240,589
Pell Grant — $240,589

Cheyney University — $5,704,859
Pell Grant — $2,262,758

Texas College — $6,254,853
Pell Grant — $4,018,491

LeMoyne-Owen College — $6,855,377
Pell Grant — $3,759,807

Voorhees College — $5,217,898
Pell Grant — $1,869,918

Tougaloo College — $11,952,823
Pell Grant — $3,739,659

Philander Smith College — $5,031,276
Pell Grant — $1,941,890

Bennett College — $4,411,049
Pell Grant — $1,900,412

Edward Waters College — $6,811,785
Pell Grant — $3,522,836

Talladega College — $7,359,836
Pell Grant — $3,677,697

Allen University — $5,344,851
Pell Grant — $2,585,388

Morris College — $6,188,514
Pell Grant — $2,745,561

Arkansas Baptist College — $7,260,416
Pell Grant — $4,712,291

It bears repeating — this is list of 15 schools, nearly 15 percent of all HBCUs, is comprised of institutions with fewer than 1,000 students. The numbers are similar for larger schools, public and private and with varying levels of academic offerings. It does not include federal work study funding or other grant monies, just those under Pell designation.

For the federal funds received by the HBCUs on this list, between 20–60 percent of it comes from Pell Grants; which means that the future of these institutions is not tethered to research or marketplace strength supported by athletics, or a marching band performing in a controversial inaugural parade, or state funding.

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If smaller HBCUs’ budgets range from $15 to $40 million annually, these numbers could reflect that anywhere from 10–40 percent of it depends on their ability to attract, enroll and retain students from families who make less than $50,000 annually.

Everybody knows Republicans don’t give away free money, but if Obama tried to limit the federal costs of student aid by increasing standards for Pell, cutting Title III funds and changing eligibility standards for loans, what should be the reasonable expectation for the Trump Administration?

No one knows, and that’s scary.

That’s why any inroads that conservative lawmakers want to make with black institutions and black voters has to start with legitimate promises on student aid. HBCUs historically have done more to reduce dependence on public resources, to reduce crime rates and to eradicate poverty among minority communities than any other institution or network of the same. But they aren’t big enough or well-endowed enough to continue this work without federal and state investment.

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Most of these institutions are ready for similar workforce development initiatives growing at community colleges, and could serve in powerful workforce development partnerships in key industries like agriculture, healthcare, social services, science and technology and education.

But planning for what colleges can do should only come after people in power can agree on how to keep them open, and any conversation outside of that is wasted time spent on shrinking space for black folks in the Republican national agenda.