Trump Budget Proposal Gives HBCU Community the 'Burning Sands' Treatment

If you let Black Twitter and Facebook tell it, most of the critics who have seen the Netflix film ‘Burning Sands’ have varying reactions to the fictional depiction of a Greek pledging process, played out at a fictional HBCU with consequences that seem all too real for far too many.
But there is also a nearly universal subheading to the split camps which either found the movie to be a gross exaggeration of a process with too many missing elements and narratives and a real-life representation of what it means and takes for someone to ‘get down;’ nearly everyone hates the ending.
President Donald Trump’s recently released federal budget proposal is a lot like that for historically black colleges and universities. The Trump Administration met some of the hype leading up to its release, caused by the historic HBCU fly-in event earlier this month which drew more than 80 presidents to the Oval Office for photo opportunities, conversation with key federal lawmakers, and the promise that HBCUs meant something to the lightning rod leader of the free world.
And in many ways, it appears that HBCUs do mean something. In a budget which calls for a $9.2 billion cut to the U.S. Department of Education and the virtual elimination of programs like the college preparatory TRIO and GEAR UP initiatives and federal work study, the most critical funding source for HBCUs – Pell Grant – remained untouched.
The proposal has divided the HBCU community much in the way that ‘Burning Sands’ has divided perspectives among BGLO members on hardcore pledging being exposed to general audiences. Congressional Black Caucus Chairman and Morehouse College alumnus Cedric Richmond minced no words on the potential harm the proposal could cause for historically black colleges.
“Although President Trump promised a ‘New Deal for Black America,’ his budget slashes the federal workforce and cripples domestic programs (e.g. federal student services TRIO programs, LIHEAP, grants for after school programs, Community Development Block Grants, and Community Services Block Grants), and we’re likely to see even more cuts in these areas if he gives tax breaks to the wealthy, as expected,” Richmond said in a release. “All of this hurts the African-American community. In addition, despite his promise to support and strengthen HBCUs, President Trump proposes to give these schools the same amount of funding they received last year. This budget proposal is not a new deal for African Americans. It’s a raw deal that robs the poor and the middle-class to pay the richest of the rich.”
Last night, the CBC released an alternative budget proposal which called for two years of free college at specific institutions, reduced interest rates on federal student loans and a $1,000 increase for Pell Grant awards.
Officials from the Thurgood Marshall College Fund issued a statement this evening with its assessment of the proposal.
With President Trump’s FY2018 budget specifically protecting level funding at $492 million, our country’s Historically Black Colleges & Universities (HBCUs) fared much better than other higher education stakeholders and federal agencies, in light of the Education Department’s 13% reduction.
Title IV (Federal Pell Grant) was also safeguarded and level funded. TMCF will work with the Members of the 115th Congress, the Bipartisan Congressional HBCU Caucus, and the Congressional Black Caucus to re-allocate the $3.9 billion unobligated carryover funding to restore year-round Pell Grants, and find ways to restore funding to the Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grants Program.
United Negro College Fund officials were more pointed in their remarks.
“Last month, while meeting with presidents of the nation’s HBCUs, President Trump pledged to do more for HBCUs than any other president has done before; however, this budget is not reflective of that sentiment. Without strong federal investments, President Trump’s commitment to HBCUs and the rebuilding of African American communities will be promises unfulfilled,” said Dr. Michael L. Lomax, UNCF president and CEO.
“UNCF strongly urges the Trump Administration to reconsider federal funding commitments for HBCUs and their students so that the executive order does not become a “toothless tiger.”  Toward that end, UNCF sent a letter to Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney today, outlining needed key FY 2018 federal investments for HBCUs.  UNCF hopes that the Administration will seriously consider these recommendations and the value of HBCUs as it continues to develop the line-item details in its budget.”
So what exactly do we think about this budget? Are we thankful that HBCU funding sources were spared in a scorched earth approach to reducing spending? Are we relieved that President Trump made good on promises that HBCUs would be a priority, and that the reprieve from federal cuts preserves our presidents’ meeting with him from unimaginable scorn and embarrassment from stakeholders and constituents?
Or are we waiting for the other shoe to drop? While TRIO and GEAR-UP funding was not a tuition subsidy, it was a valuable resource for campuses seeking to bolster budgets for marketing, recruitment and community outreach – all which annually helped thousands of students to gain interest in and to be prepared for life at an HBCU. How much is it going to hurt when it is no longer available?
What about federal work study? Many of our students who qualify for Pell also qualify for this program and often need both to draw down costs for tuition, room and board every academic year. Will this have a similar effect to the Parent PLUS changes under the Obama Administration, which interrupted the education of more than 25,000 students over several years? Or will our students from low-income households be exempt from the majority of the reductions due to extreme need?
And what about departmental commitments to HBCUs? Could the black college money magic be found not in the Dept. of Ed budget line, but in the agencies like Homeland Security, the Department of Defense and Department of Veterans’ Affairs – all of which received additional funding in the proposal?
There’s so much we can see, but don’t yet know about the impact this budget will have on HBCUs. But everyone’s talking about it nonetheless, much like ‘Burning Sands.’ We know that the intent of the movie was to warn us against hazing, but did it achieve that, or simply affirm caution, discretion, and unity as the true aims of pledging?
Did the movie dissuade people from signing up for hazing? Or did it secretly fuel perspectives about what “going hard” really means or should mean in an underground process? And if the movie successfully steers people away from hazing and membership in black fraternities and sororities, are we better served with fewer black mentors, philanthropists, and volunteers in our communities?
I guess that’s life in HBCU culture. When it comes to politics or pledging, all of us are steadily trying to make it across burning sands.
But when we arrive, are we ever sure about what it all means?