WASHINGTON -- Historically black colleges and their allies are celebrating National HBCU Week here, including with meetings on federal research investments at such colleges. But money flowing from federal agencies and departments to historically black colleges, including federal money for research in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, dropped by about 13 percent in 2011, according to an analysis by the White House Initiative on Historically Black Colleges and Universities.
When Pell Grants and student loans are taken into account, federal funding that went to the colleges actually increased, the White House said, and the loss of money from other agencies and departments mirrors a decline for higher education as a whole. Advocates for historically black colleges say the drop-off is cause for concern, but not panic.
In fiscal year 2011, the last year with available data, federal support for historically black colleges fell by about $145 million from 2010, the first such drop after steady increases since 2007. The biggest declines came in the Education Department, where support dropped by $43 million, and the Department of Health and Human Services, where support dropped by $51.5 million. (Gains in other departments, including the Department of Defense, partially offset the losses.)
Much of the decrease is caused by less funding for research in the sciences. Funding for research in STEM fields (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) at historically black colleges increased by more than $100 million between 2007 and 2010. Between 2010 and 2011, funding dropped by $87.6 million. Funding for medical research from the Department of Health and Human Services, which includes the National Institutes of Health, made up more than half the decline.
The decline in funding comes despite a push from the Obama administration to direct more resources to historically black colleges. The White House initiative is aimed specifically at helping the colleges win more federal grants, and since 2009, it succeeded: federal funding at historically black colleges increased year-to-year, from $1.3 billion in 2007 to $1.5 billion in 2010.
In 2011, though, some funding for the colleges included in the economic stimulus bill of 2009 came to an end. At the same time, the House of Representatives formally adopted a ban on earmarks, or directing federal funds to specific projects, a practice from which many colleges had benefited in the past.
While many historically black colleges have tight budgets, the loss of funding probably isn’t an existential threat, said James T. Minor, senior program officer and director of higher education programs for the Southern Education Foundation. “Is there cause for concern? The answer is yes,” Minor said. But he noted that many federal agencies have undergone budget cuts of their own, meaning that less grant money is available to start with. And while losing research funding could have consequences for individual departments or projects at black colleges, it’s unlikely to affect the overall budget at many colleges, he said.
“None of the grants or contracts or partnership with the federal agencies typically would be a part of their core budget,” Minor said. “It’s not how they keep the lights on.”
In an e-mail, John Silvanus Wilson Jr., director of the White House Initiative on Historically Black Colleges and Universities, said the 13 percent drop in funds to historically black colleges was on par with a drop in federal money for all colleges and universities.
“Despite operating in one of the most challenging budget environments in recent memory, the president continues to invest in making higher education more affordable for all students,” Wilson said.
And Wilson pointed out that financial assistance to individual students, including those at historically black colleges, increased from 2010 to 2011. More Pell Grants and veterans’ benefits were awarded to students at those colleges than in past years. Funding for student assistance from the Education Department increased by $274 million, and veterans’ benefits increased by $276 million.
Given the tight budget climate, though, Minor said he hoped the White House effort would focus increasingly on leveraging partnerships between federal agencies and colleges to advance specific goals.
“If you look at the averages from one year to the next, I think the White House initiative has done O.K.,” Minor said. “But I’d like to see them with even more power... to leverage resources on behalf of institutions.”