Bigger Tent for Minority-Serving Colleges

Just-passed law creates new federal categories (and provides new funds) for "predominantly black," Asian and Native American institutions, avoiding conflict inherent in previous proposals.
October 9, 2007

The most obvious winners in the education budget bill that President Bush signed into law late last month are the students who will eventually receive the increased Pell Grants and lowered loan interest rates that are the measure's primary focus. But another major beneficiary of the College Cost Reduction and Access Act are colleges and universities that serve significant numbers of minority students, including institutions that have meaningful proportions of Asian and Native American students and others that are "predominantly" but not "historically" black -- that will be eligible for federal funds for the first time.

The backers of the new programs say they will provide much-needed financial support for colleges that are doing the heavy lifting of increasing numbers of students who are significantly underrepresented in higher education, who overwhelmingly come from low-income backgrounds and need to play catchup academically because they've been shortchanged by their high schools. But critics warn -- and even some supporters worry -- that the creation of new programs based on race could be open to legal challenge at a time of heightened scrutiny of such classifications.

The new law provides $510 million over two years (fiscal 2007-8 and 2008-9) for minority-serving colleges for a variety of purposes, including to buy lab equipment and cover instructional costs (see page 118 of this document for a description).

Most of the money would go to existing programs for groups of institutions that are accustomed to such funds: $200 million in competitive grants for Hispanic-serving institutions, with an emphasis on increasing the number of low-income students in science and math fields; $170 million for historically black colleges and universities; $60 million for tribal colleges; and $30 million for Alaskan/Hawaiian Native institutions.

But the measure also creates three entirely new classifications of colleges that educate students from minority groups. For the first time, the federal government will provide funds to:

  • "Predominantly black" colleges, where at least 40 percent of the undergraduate students are black and at least half of all undergrads are low-income or first-generation college students ($30 million over two years).
  • Asian/Pacific Islander serving colleges, where at least 10 percent of the students are from those racial groups and at least half are low-income or first generation ($10 million over two years).
  • Native American-serving nontribal colleges, where at least 10 percent of the undergraduates are American Indian ($10 million over two years).

The creation of the three new classifications marks the end of years worth of effort by advocates for the minority groups in questions and by lawmakers working on their behalf, including Reps. Danny Davis (D-Ill.) and Major Owens (D-N.Y.), and Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.), Rep. David Wu (D-Ore.), and Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.), among others. They have argued that the new classifications (and new funds) will help colleges bolster the enrollments and academic success of groups whose college outcomes have long lagged.

Contrary to popular perception shaped by the success of some Asians (notably Japanese and Korean Americans), for instance, groups like the Southeast Asia Resource Action Center have argued for years that many other categories (such as Vietnamese and Cambodian immigrants) continue to graduate from high school and enroll in college at much-lower-than-average rates.

Similarly, supporters of "predominantly black" colleges, notably the National Association for Equal Opportunity in Higher Education, have been pushing the government for several years to recognize their institutions, which educate large numbers of African American students but do not qualify under the 1964 Civil Rights Act designation aimed at recognizing (and providing remedial support for) colleges created in the segregation era to educate black Americans. Dozens of colleges, particularly public four-year and two-year institutions in urban areas, such as numerous City University of New York campuses, the City Colleges of Chicago, and others, enroll significant numbers of black students but do not qualify under the historical designation because they were never part of a de jure segregated system.

“For decades, predominantly black Institutions have given our students the skills and knowledge they need to succeed in today's economy, and their recognition is long overdue," said Obama. "This funding will invest in a new generation of leaders by strengthening these institutions. Higher education remains too far out of reach for many students and we must break down any barriers that are preventing our kids from getting the world-class education they deserve.”

The push to recognize "predominantly black" institutions has not always been embraced by historically black institutions. Many of them fought (successfully) a 2005 effort by New York’s Owens to amend the Higher Education Act to let predominantly black institutions compete for funds (under the Education Department's Title III program) that have been reserved for historically black institutions. They complained that HBCU's are already struggling financially and that further divvying up the limited funds they receive was the wrong way to go about strengthening institutions that have other sources of funds. (Similar arguments have been made about tribal colleges and nontribal Native American serving institutions.)

Opponents of the 2005 proposal also said they feared that letting predominantly black institutions into the Title III program could subject the program to potential legal challenge. The 1964 designation given to historically black colleges was carefully constructed based not on the fact that they enrolled certain numbers of black students, but because they had long focused on educating black students and had long suffered discrimination from state and federal governments.

The United Negro College Fund, which opposed the 2005 effort, supported the creation of the new designations, in large part because the measure -- rather than tapping into existing sources of federal funds and potentially threatening the annual appropriations of the historically black institutions -- creates new pools of money that are funded (at least for the first two years) through federal mandatory funds that aren't subject to the yearly whims of Congressional appropriators. "We didn't have an objection to crafting some kind of additional funding stream," said William A. (Buddy) Blakey, a Washington lobbyist who formerly represented the UNCF. (Note: An earlier version of this article implied that Blakey still represents the college fund; he does not.)

Blakey, who raised concerns about the potential legal threat raised by the proposed 2005 change, said the new programs enacted in the cost reduction law is constitutionally permissible, because "race is only one factor" in the programs' creation, "and all of the rest of the factors are race neutral."

But others aren't so sure. Roger Clegg, who as president of the Center for Equal Opportunity has made a living out of challenging the legality of affirmative action and other programs, said the new law designates institutions "based primarily on race." “Unlike with historically black colleges, you don’t have the remedial justification [for using race] if it’s being done strictly on the basis of the percentage of students there. And you don’t have the diversity justification [for affirmative action] either, because the whole point of the diversity rationale is that you are using it in the admissions context to increase the numbers."

Added Clegg: “I don’t think this is constitutional, and I certainly don’t think it’s fair.”

Those issues aside, the new proposal has unified representatives of colleges that educate minority students -- at least for the time being. Because the new law provides additional funds for the newly classified institutions rather than forcing them to compete for discretionary funds with historically black and Hispanic colleges, the latter colleges “don’t view it in any way as competition, but as something we endorse, embrace,” said Antonio Flores, president of the Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities. “Ultimately all these communities are in need of greater support from the federal government and other sources, just as we are. We are in the same boat.”

That sense of cooperation is likely to remain -- at least as long as the mandatory funds that Congress has provided in the budget reconciliation legislation don’t dry up, at which point the various classifications of colleges could be forced to compete for money and the hearts and minds of Congressional appropriators.


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