For HBCUs, New Start Under Clinton?

As campaign focuses on turnout of young black voters, leaders of historically black colleges see opportunity for stronger relationship with Clinton than they had with Obama White House.

October 17, 2016
Hillary Clinton at rally at Johnson C. Smith University

As Hillary Clinton looks to shore up her support among millennial voters, her campaign is targeting the one youth demographic -- African-American voters -- that was a relative strength for the Democratic nominee in the long primary campaign.

The candidate has visited 11 black colleges and counting during the campaign, while former President Bill Clinton has appeared at six campuses in the runup to Election Day. Campaign staffers are aiming to reach young African-Americans wherever they can for voter registration and turnout efforts. And Clinton has talked up policies like an infusion of federal funds for minority-serving institutions, while stating repeatedly that her plans for free public higher education won't discourage students from enrolling at historically black colleges, public or private.

Clinton did better with young African-American voters in the Democratic primary than she did with young voters overall -- June YouGov polling data showed her trailing Senator Bernie Sanders badly among white Democratic-leaning voters 44 and under but basically breaking even with younger nonwhite voters. Turning out that base is a key part of her campaign’s November strategy. But she faces the same well-documented enthusiasm gap with many of those voters as she does among other millennials, which she’s sought to tackle with a bigger presence at HBCUs. Leaders in the sector who often found themselves frustrated with the Obama administration see a new opportunity for the sector under a potential new Clinton administration.

On the trail, Clinton has pitched young African-American voters on the same higher education platform she’s offered elsewhere -- free public, four-year college, refinancing of student loans and new funding for services like child care. Many at historically black colleges are impressed by the $25 billion the Democratic nominee has pledged for minority-serving institutions. During the primary campaign, surrogates of Clinton, who has since offered her own version of Sanders’s free college plan, argued the policy as he proposed it would threaten the historically black colleges that aren’t public. Just as importantly, they say, the Clinton campaign has signaled a willingness to engage with minority institutions.

“This isn’t like someone who is coming out of left field. This feels very genuine,” said Johnny C. Taylor Jr., president and CEO of the Thurgood Marshall College Fund, which represents publicly supported historically black colleges. “She’s had a track record of supporting HBCUs. We all are hopeful -- while acknowledging that it won’t be a cakewalk.”

That’s a stark contrast with attitudes toward the Obama administration. The relationship between the White House and HBCU leaders has been strained through much of the last seven years. Many leaders of black colleges say that the Department of Education’s approach generally was to inform minority-serving institutions of a policy change after a decision was made, rather than gathering input beforehand.

A handful of policy decisions taken by the administration were especially aggravating to HBCU leaders:

  • The elimination of an $85 million annual fund for historically black colleges initially provided by the George W. Bush administration (later restored).
  • Stronger enforcement of underwriting standards for federal PLUS loans -- which the administration adjusted after criticism from HBCU leaders.
  • The elimination of summer Pell Grants and capping of maximum Pell semesters. The controversy resulted from changes intended to sustain funding for the program in the face of attempts by congressional Republicans to cut it, former administration officials said. (Obama has since proposed restoring summer Pell.)
  • Obama’s proposal -- announced without consulting HBCUs -- to make community college free.

The president’s 2013 commencement speech to the Morehouse College graduating class added to the sense that HBCUs were being condescended to, rather than supported. Many African-American listeners heard the speech as lecturing the black graduates of the college. More recently, his comments at Southern University about low graduation rates at some historically black colleges drew frustration from figures like Taylor, who said they did not place the successes of those institutions in the proper context.

“I don’t think that the Obama White House really got HBCUs,” said Julianne Malveaux, the former president of Bennett College in North Carolina. “He did not have people around him who highly valued HBCUs, in my opinion.”

Obama appointed several African-American officials to prominent cabinet or advisory positions, among them Eric Holder, Loretta Lynch and Valerie Jarrett. None of them attended HBCUs, and neither did the president or First Lady Michelle Obama. His prominent black appointees are, like himself, graduates of Ivies and similarly elite universities. Clinton, however, has a history of interacting and working with African-American leaders who graduated from those institutions or know them firsthand. And with another Clinton White House looking increasingly likely, Taylor sees a new opportunity for engagement with the next Democratic president. That’s partly because the Clintons have a long history of supporting African-American institutions. And partly because he’s already seen a difference interacting with the Clinton campaign team.

And Taylor said that Clinton’s debt-free college plan -- which would make public four-year universities free to students with family incomes up to $125,000 -- goes a long way toward addressing concerns HBCU students have about the affordability of higher education. Taylor’s organization believes the free four-year plan puts HBCUs on equal footing with other colleges and universities, whereas free community college alone could hurt those campuses’ enrollment.

David Bergeron, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress who previously served as acting assistant secretary for postsecondary education at the Department of Education under Obama, said the administration did have communication problems with minority-serving institutions. The flash points of disagreement were not a result of intentional slights or disregard for the HBCU sector, Bergeron said, but those decisions had unintended consequences for the sector.

The policy changes on issues like PLUS loans were intended to fix systemic problems with student aid that went far beyond historically black colleges, he said.

“Every time it happened, it made the relationship more strained,” he said.

He said the department lacked the bandwidth to handle multiple crises at once but also didn’t exercise the proper sensitivity to potential effects on historically black institutions.

“The people who are advising Hillary are very aware of all this history,” Bergeron said. “They can learn from this history. They’re not going to have to learn it in the first hundred days [of the new administration].”

Education Secretary John King said in a statement that HBCUs are vital engines of economic growth and advancement for African-Americans and that the administration has committed support to the tune of $4 billion in aid and institutional grants each year.

“While we are tremendously proud of our work to support HBCUs and their students, we recognize that there is more work ahead to ensure all students have the opportunities they deserve,” King said.

At the same time that Clinton campaign has rolled out a policy platform to appeal to minority-serving institutions, her staff on the ground is looking to target younger African-American voters, whether on HBCU campuses or elsewhere. Deputy National Millennial Outreach Director Jamira Burley said the campaign has expanded its overall presence on the ground as well as the size of its millennial team since the primary.

“We don’t take any vote for granted,” she said. “We know we have to go to where the young people are.”

To that end, the campaign has identified events where staffers can interact with young voters to make sure they are registered to vote in November, including visits to Black Girl Magic events, concert venues and poetry slams. The campaign is also holding pop-up voter registration drives in locations like shoe stores and game shops.

Malveaux said the Clinton team has done well to promise new funding for programs like on-campus child care, a sign the campaign recognizes the growing diversity of student populations. But she said Clinton still has work to do engaging young minority voters, many of them enthusiastic Sanders supporters.

“I think that younger people want to see more,” she said. “They’re just not excited.”

Sanders has begun stumping for Clinton in a series of states, and the former primary rivals recently appeared together at a rally at the University of New Hampshire, promising to work together to pass the debt-free college plan in Congress. But it’s clear that much of the enthusiasm for Sanders’s candidacy among some young minority voters has yet to transfer to Clinton’s campaign.

Adriyanna Andreus, president of the D.C. Federation of College Democrats, said Clinton is still falling short in making her case to millennials, even with her outreach to HBCUs.

While minority-serving institutions are treated as a key interest group by the Clinton campaign, Andreus said, the students attending those colleges have a variety of concerns beyond college affordability, from climate change and the minimum wage to immigration reform. Younger minority voters are turned off by Trump, she said, but many aren’t hearing the message about why they should vote for Clinton. And they want to hear about those issues from the candidate herself, not just popular surrogates.

“A lot of times you hear, ‘Don’t vote for Trump.’ OK, we won’t vote for Trump but why should we vote for you?” Andreus said. “That piece really needs to be present more, and they need to focus on telling people why Hillary’s the choice.”


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