In a keynote address Tuesday at this year's National HBCU Week Conference, Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings urged historically black colleges and universities to help promote two new federal merit-based grant programs aimed at bringing more students from low-income families into higher education, and especially into scientific fields.
Spellings said that up to 30,000 students at historically black institutions could qualify for a total of $23 million over the next five years under the Academic Competitiveness and National Science and Mathematics Access to Retaining Talent (SMART) Grants. The Academic Competitiveness Grants provide up to $750 for freshmen and $1,300 for sophomores from low-income families, while SMART Grants for juniors and seniors who major in certain fields, like math and science, are worth up to $4,000. Congress and the Bush administration have committed $4.5 billion over the next five years for the two programs over all.
“These grants are already becoming available,” said Spellings, “and they provide a great incentive for students to challenge themselves to become the innovators and entrepreneurs of tomorrow.”
Some detractors of the grants  have argued that many students will have difficulty meeting the strings attached to the new grant programs. Students must have succeeded in a "rigorous" high school curriculum to earn the grants as freshmen, and maintain a 3.0 grade point average to earn the grants as sophomores, juniors or seniors. At the same time, older students, including many at historically black colleges, are not eligible for the programs, since they are available only on full-time college students who just graduated high school.
Spellings acknowledged that many black students, like some who attend Ballou High School in Washington, are struggling -- and would thus not be eligible for the funds. At Ballou, most of whose students are black, just 40 students are enrolled in Advanced Placement classes, while across the Potomac River at McLean High School, a majority white institution, more than 500 enrolled in such classes last year.
“This policy opportunity has really been a wake-up call to officials in the K-12 system and in higher education,” said Spellings during a press briefing after her speech. “We have to connect in smarter ways because it’s going to be good for students.”
“The importance of science and math is something that we’ve all bought into,” said Patrick Swygert, president of Howard University, as he discussed the grant programs with Spellings. “We also have to have the resources to recruit, retain and graduate students.”
Also during the briefing, Spellings talked to Sabrina Simmons, a freshman at Howard University, who has received $750 under the Academic Competitiveness program. “For the first time, we’ve said, ‘We want and need more Sabrinas,' ” the secretary said.
Spellings said that in order for more minority students to benefit from the programs, HBCUs must continue to make connections with high schools to help develop a pipeline of qualified students. She said that programs at North Carolina A&T State University, the largest historically black college in its state, “has one of the best models I’ve seen.” The institution’s leaders have developed an alternative charter school for pre-college students on its campus, as well as mentoring programs for K-12 students in public schools in the area.
“We need to do much more of that to show our students what the expectations in higher education are,” said Spellings.