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President Biden’s ambitious higher education agenda has had its disappointments as Congress turns it into legislation, with a strict budget forcing lower-than-anticipated funding levels for some of its provisions. While the bill includes funding for historically Black colleges and universities, advocates say it is well below what’s needed.
In the current version of the budget reconciliation bill serving as the vehicle for Biden’s Build Back Better Act, HBCUs and other minority-serving institutions are slated to receive $27 billion in tuition subsidies, $1.45 billion for institutional aid and $2 billion to improve research and development infrastructure. Meanwhile, Biden proposed a total of $55 billion for HBCUs and other MSIs to upgrade research infrastructure and create research incubators for improving STEM education.
“The number is just significantly lower than what we had hoped for,” said Paul Jones, president of Fort Valley State University and vice chair of the Council of 1890 Presidents. “Along with the minority-serving institutions and the Hispanic-serving institutions, it's really sort of lumping us all into this one sector when we all have tremendous needs.”
The presidents and chancellors of the 1890 Universities -- the HBCUs designated as land-grant institutions by Congress -- sent a letter to House Education and Labor Committee chair Bobby Scott, a Democrat from Virginia, and Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions chair Patty Murray, a Democrat from Washington, asking them to consider including additional infrastructure funding for HBCUs in the package, given that the institutions have historically been underfunded.
“Our universities have produced some of the nation’s greatest minds and the funding proposed would allow us to continue producing scholars,” the letter said. “We hope that we can count on your support of this request by adding significant funding for our institutions through the budget reconciliation process. Conversely, failure to include such investments would leave a significant gap as Congress and the Biden-Harris administration seek to rebuild our nation’s public infrastructure.”
The 1890 Universities indicated their support for the design of and funding included in the IGNITE HBCU Excellence Act, a bipartisan and bicameral bill introduced in May that would establish a competitive grant program to fund upgrades to campus facilities at public and private HBCUs, new equipment for research, greater access to high-speed broadband, and preservation of historic buildings. The funding in the budget reconciliation bill is heavily based on the IGNITE Act.
The biggest champion of that legislation, Representative Alma Adams, a Democrat from North Carolina, sent a letter to her colleagues Sunday, expressing concerns with how the infrastructure funding has been structured in the Build Back Better Act -- first, that all MSIs will have to compete for the same pot of money, and second, that priority is given to institutions receiving less than $10 million a year in federal research dollars.
“This is contrary to President Biden’s own goals for HBCU and MSI funding, which states ‘to ensure funding is more equitably distributed among HBCUs, TCUs, and MSIs, the Biden administration will require that competitive grant programs make similar universities compete against each other, for example, ensuring that HBCUs only compete against HBCUs.’ If this language as written becomes law, it is accurate to say that HBCUs will only successfully compete for pennies on the dollar,” Adams wrote, adding that while she appreciates the intention of allowing colleges and universities with smaller research capacities to jump-start their efforts, the legislation would actually inhibit R-2 HBCUs from becoming R-1 institutions by deprioritizing their grant applications.
Adams said she won’t vote for the legislation as it currently exists because she believes it “will not serve its intended purpose.”
Harry L. Williams, president and CEO of the Thurgood Marshall College Fund, which represents public HBCUs, expressed similar concerns about the reconciliation bill in a statement following its release. He said the organization was “surprised at and disappointed with” the level and allocation of the infrastructure funding.
“At present, the reconciliation bill proposes to allocate only $2 billion in infrastructure funding for HBCUs and Minority-Serving Institutions alike; a surprisingly limited sum to account for a group of more than 700 institutions of higher education,” Williams said. While we certainly do not oppose MSIs receiving their own tranche of infrastructure funding, we strongly believe that it is not in the interest of HBCUs to be forced to compete with MSIs who do not have the substantial deferred maintenance expenses and elemental infrastructure needs of HBCUs, and certainly have not experienced the extensive legacy of underfunding that our institutions have encountered.”
UNCF, which represents private HBCUs, also called on lawmakers to make adjustments to the legislation’s language so that the bill’s impact can be “truly transformational.”
An Education and Labor Committee aide said that Scott has raised these concerns with House leadership but didn’t say whether changes to the language will occur. Both chambers of Congress are under pressure to keep spending levels low for most of Biden's proposed initiatives so that the package stays within its $3.5 trillion price tag.
“HBCUs are invaluable centers of opportunity, innovation, and academic achievement for the Black community and for our entire nation and economy," a HELP Committee aid said. "Senator Murray is pushing hard to help end racial inequities in research and development by supporting these critical institutions.”
HBCUs have been a key part of solving the nation’s problems first -- whether that’s providing access to education for Black and low-income students or helping underrepresented men and women break into STEM field, said Makola Abdullah, president of Virginia State University and chair of the Council of 1890 Presidents. And new investments are needed to continue that mission.
“There are some really important questions of our current time that I think HBCUs can help tackle with the proper amount of investment from the federal government -- climate change, criminal justice reform, broadband access,” Abdullah said. “Our 1890 HBCUs are uniquely positioned to be able to help solve some of the problems of the nation, but through some historic underfunding, our infrastructure isn't where our talent is. If we can invest in our infrastructure, we can bring our talent to the equation and provide solutions to the nation.”