The Real Story of Obama’s White House Initiative on HBCUs – Part III

The following is an ongoing series to reveal details of federal investment in historically black colleges and universities from 2008-2016. Part I of the series can be found here  and Part II here.
In a recent meeting with President Trump, HBCU presidents recommended that supervision of the White House Initiative on Historically Black Colleges and Universities (the WHI) be moved back to the White House. They believe that proximity to the White House and staff will have a significant impact on the visibility and effectiveness, while others argue that the office should remain under the direction of the Secretary of Education. The latter argument has some merit, given the Secretary’s responsibility for managing Titles III and IV, the largest sources of support to HBCUs.
President Obama, like President Bush before him, issued his Executive Order more than two years after his inauguration. President Bush’s Executive Order 13256, issued in 2002, transferred the WHI to the Office of the Secretary of Education (ED). President Obama’s Order, issued in 2010, left the WHI in the Office of the Secretary and Secretary Arne Duncan moved the office and its supervision to the Undersecretary of Education.
The last two Executive Orders assigned specific responsibilities to the WHI. Those responsibilities include but, are not restricted to: advocacy on behalf of HBCUs within the federal government, producing timely reports on the level of federal support to HBCUs, providing support to the President’s Board of Advisors, and convening an interagency committee on a regular basis to coordinate federal activity in support of HBCUs.

Advocacy within the federal government on behalf of HBCUs.  

The last executive director under President Bush had been an executive vice president of a university system and Assistant Secretary for Higher Education in the Department of Education. Before him, the position was held by a man who had been a senior administrator in the Department of Education, president of one of the largest HBCUs in the country and an ambassador.
By contrast, the executive directors in the Obama administration were appointed at the General Schedule level 15 (GS-15). The GS-15 level is a level below the level of the Senior Executive Service (SES), political appointees and senior government officers who develop policy or require senatorial approval.
A GS-15 more typically serves as an assistant to senior federal administrators. They do not typically convene meetings of senior government administrators. The convening and coordination of policy making administrators is a function reserved to their peers. The executive directors of the office did not convene an interagency meeting of senior federal administrators to coordinate federal policy on HBCUs during the term of the Bush or Obama administrations. Appointment of WHI leadership at a subordinate  level undermines the functioning of the office.   
Over the six-year period, from 2010 to 2016, the WHI had six executive directors. While the staff was located on the fourth floor of the Education Department at 400 Maryland Avenue in Washington, D.C., the day-to-day management of the office was delegated to individuals who lived in or worked in Atlanta. In one case, a senior manager of the ED financial aid office in Atlanta split responsibilities between those significant duties and the management of the WHI. On another occasion, with the knowledge and approval of the Undersecretary, the executive director lived in Atlanta on a full-time basis, which damaged the ability to liaison with other federal agencies and significantly diminished respect and support for the office.

Annual Reports

When the Obama WHI began operation, it could find no evidence that required annual reports had been produced in the previous four years. Most departments and agencies had continued to submit reports as required by the executive order, but many of the reports were neither substantive nor accurate. When questioned about the submissions, many of the agencies expressed surprise that someone in the WHI office had taken the time to read their submissions.
They complained that in the past, plan submissions were taken seriously and much work went into preparation of the submissions, but once the plans were submitted to the WHI, they received no responses or comments. No composite information or reports were published to give guidance to the reporting agencies or to the institutions.  
A reasonable timeframe for publishing the WHI reports would be six months after the close of the federal agency fiscal year. That would allow three months after the close of the fiscal year to submit reports to the WHI and three months for the WHI to prepare and publish the report. During the eight years of the Obama administration, the WHI did not release any reports any earlier than two years after the information became available. The first year in the Obama administration that saw a significant drop in support to the institutions was 2011. The WHI published the 2011 report in 2014.
When it appeared that federal support to HBCUs had begun to fall after 2010, members of the Board asked the WHI for agency data so that they could develop policy recommendations. The leadership of the WHI made repeated promises to provide the information. But information was not forthcoming. The falling support became a source of concern to organizations that represented the HBCUs, such as the National Association for Educational Opportunity (NAFEO), the United Negro College Fund (UNCF), and the Thurgood Marshall Fund.
When they requested information about federal support, specific promises were made, but the promised information was never produced. In fact, the staff was instructed to say that the information was not available. When a draft compilation of agency data was sent out to the agencies for confirmation, the executive director specifically forbade the distribution of the information to other agencies.
The National Center for Educational Statistics (NCES) is the federal body charged with tracking and reporting on federal interaction with school systems and institutions of higher education. NCES reports that in 2010, federal expenditures to Historically Black Colleges and Universities totaled $2,536,093. Federal expenditures dropped to $2,033,532 in 2013-14 and again to $1,919,925 in academic year 2014-15. That is a drop of 24% in support over a five-year period. A previously cited report issued by the National Science Foundation (NSF) found that in 2014 federal science and engineering support to the 90 HBCUs that received federal science and engineering support in that year had dropped again in 2012 and had reached the lowest level of support since 2000. The 90 HBCUs together had received less than one fourth of the support provided to Johns Hopkins University.
Yet, the myth persists that HBCUs saw a significant rise in support during the Obama administration. That myth started in the WHI and persists in the face of all credible reports to the contrary. The evidence that contradicts that representation includes reports produced by the WHI.
WHI Annual Reports covering the years 2008 through 2013 are found at the WHI website. At table 1 of the 2013 report, the reader is led to believe that the Department of Education (ED) provided $4,225,388,454 in support to HBCUs in 2013.
But the NCES, the unit in the Department of Education that has been charged with compiling and reporting federal expenditure data for decades found the total of federal transfers to HBCUs at $2,033,532 in that same year.
How could there be a $2.5 billion-dollar difference? The answer is simple. The WHI report mixes apples and oranges. Of the $4.225 billion reported as support from ED, $3,435,031,619 or 81% of that amount is student financial aid, including student work study and loans to students and their parents.
An honest accounting would not mix student work study stipends and funds that had to be repaid to the federal government with interest as direct support to the institutions in the same category as contracts and grants. To see what support ED provided to HBCUs in the form of contracts and grants, we must turn to table 5 of that report. There we find that the actual amount of ED support in that year was $790,356,835. That amount is listed as “capacity building programs.” The capacity building programs consist almost entirely of Title III and TRIO programs.
The listing of student work study and Perkins loans to parents as “federal funding ….to HBCUs” in table 1 should be deeply troubling to HBCU leadership. On the one hand, it gives the impression that HBCUs are receiving three times the amount of federal support that they received as direct support.
On the other hand, it masked the significant decline in federal direct support to HBCUs from 2010 to 2015.  
Table 5 of 2013 WHI report shows $3,435,031,619 in financial aid funding was awarded to HBCUs. In that same year, NCES reports that HBCUs received a total of $1,842,023,000 in tuition and fees from all sources. Even if students and their families did not contribute one penny to their educations, the WHI number would still have reported a number $1,593,008,000 higher than the number reported by the NCES.
The deliberate inflation of the federal support to HBCUs from the Department of Education and other federal agencies has worked to the serious disadvantage of the institutions. The public is led to believe that the HBCUs receive three times the actual amount received. The failure to provide accurate and timely reports to the agencies and to the HBCUs severely undermined the credibility of the office with the federal agencies, the Board and with the HBCU advocacy community.

Providing support to the President’s Board of Advisors on Historically Black Colleges and Universities.

The WHI is charged with providing support to the Board. But the Board’s effectiveness and reach was limited in significant part because the leadership of the WHI worked within the Department to limit the Board’s authority and effectiveness. Because the Board and the leadership of the WHI had different views of the appropriate recommendations to submit to the Secretary and the President they submitted separate reports. During the entire administration, the Board was not able to meet with the President to present their recommendations.  
Convening an Interagency Committee. President Obama’s Executive Order 13532 directed the Secretary of Education to convene the other members of the President’s cabinet and designated agencies to coordinate HBCU participation in department and agency programs. Where appropriate, the Secretary or the executive director was to develop interagency initiatives.  During his entire term as Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan failed to convene such a meeting.
The Annual Conference. None of the Executive Orders direct the WHI to convene an annual conference in Washington, D.C. but the WHI on its own has developed the practice of a conference in the capitol on an annual basis. Ideally, an annual conference would bring the senior management of the HBCUs to Washington D.C. to meet with the leaders of the executive and legislative branches and senior federal managers. This would provide opportunity for federal policy and program managers to become more familiar with the capacities and interests of the HBCU leadership. As important, it would give HBCU leadership an opportunity to acquaint themselves with federal leadership, their priorities and future program initiatives.
In recent years, the WHI has put as much if not more time and energy into the production of the annual conference as it has put into the collection, analysis and publication of information on federal support to HBCUs. In the absence of substantive meetings between senior federal managers and senior HBCU leadership, the annual conference has begun to list prominent media personalities as presenters and has taken on more of the tenor of professional development seminars.
It is important that the WHI have access to and interact with the Secretary of Education. The Education Department manages Title III and Title IV of the Higher Education Act and it sets federal higher education policy. But over the past sixteen years, the WHI has become an extension of the Department of Education.
If the HBCUs are to have access to the programs that can have a significant impact on their health and future, they must have access to the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), the Domestic Policy Council, and the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP). The institutions need broader access to the programs of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), the Department of Defense (DoD), the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), the Department of Agriculture (USDA), the National Science Foundation (NSF), the Department of Energy (DOE), the Department of State (State) and the National Institute for Standards and Technology (NIST).
The WHI is much more likely to have successful interactions with those agencies if the outreach comes from a senior federal official reaching out from the Executive Office of the President than from an office that reports to the senior staff of the Secretary of Education.
The movement of the WHI reporting responsibility back to the White House in and of itself does not guarantee a more effective office. But it will free the office of the problem of the conflicts that hampered it within ED. It will give the office a more authoritative relationship with the most important federal agencies and could result in a significant improvement in the visibility and performance of the office.
But in the end, the success or failure of the office will depend solely on the level of reporting relationship and the degree to which political and administrative support is provided by the White House.