In a Democratic primary contest that hinges in part on black voters, the funding of historically black colleges and universities has become a major campaign issue. But, while both campaigns are talking about HBCUs, one is using them as a line of attack. Surrogates for Hillary Clinton have suggested that her higher-education plan is better for black students and HBCUs than that of her opponent Bernie Sanders. Not only are those surrogates wrong in their misuse of the schools, but they’re also wrong about the facts.
“By focusing exclusively on making public college free, Sanders’s plan wouldn’t spend a dime on private HBCUs and threatens roughly 50 percent of HBCUs that are not public,” said Representative Cedric Richmond of Louisiana, in a statement issued by Clinton’s campaign weeks ago. Richmond continued in his criticism that Sanders’s higher-education plan leaves HBCUs “out in the cold.”
“As Senator Sanders promotes his HBCU tour, he owes it to the students to explain why half the HBCUs in the country aren’t worth any investment,” Richmond said.
James Clyburn, a Democratic Representative from South Carolina and a Clinton backer, doubled down on Richmond’s comments days before the South Carolina primary. "If you say that you're going to have college—free two-year college—among public institutions, why would a student go to an HBCU? And most of which are private institutions," Clyburn told NewsOne Now. "What will happen is these HBCUs will all close down all across America because they would not be able to afford to stay open."
With both statements, Clyburn and Richmond leverage just how sacred HBCUs are to black voters while obscuring important context. HBCUs are indeed critical to the education of black students. Despite enrolling just 8 percent of black undergraduates, they award 15 percent of the bachelor’s degrees earned by black Americans. And as the congressmen suggest, HBCUs are grossly underfunded, operating on about an eighth of the average endowment of other institutions. The arguments made by the Clinton surrogates break down, however, with a close look at the composition of HBCUs and where they fit in the black education landscape.
There are an estimated 2,872,000 black students enrolled nationally at degree-granting postsecondary institutions. Of them, only 8 percent are enrolled at historically black colleges and universities. And of all the black students at HBCUs, only about a quarter are enrolled at private HBCUs. In all, a little more than 2 percent of all black college students are enrolled at private HBCUs. It is this small percentage of students that the Clinton surrogates have made the focus of their attacks on Sanders.
Then there are the details of both higher-education plans. Both Clinton and Sanders pledge to lower student-loan interest rates and allow those with existing debt to refinance their loans. That’s where the similarities end. The Sanders plan is marked by its proposal to make public colleges and universities free. In addition to that, Sanders proposes a dramatic increase to student aid, and the candidate recently stated his backing for a dedicated $30 billion fund to support private HBCUs and other “minority-serving institutions.”
The Clinton plan also has its distinctions. It proposes extending a popular higher-education tax credit, limiting student-loan repayment to just 10 percent of monthly income and increasing federal and state investment in public schools that serve low- and middle-income students. In addition, Clinton’s higher-education plan proposes that Pell grants be expanded to cover student living expenses. It also explicitly calls for a dedicated $25 billion fund to provide support to private nonprofit schools that serve low- and middle-income students.
While the Clinton plan creates and increases funding for which black students and HBCUs are eligible, it falls short of the kind of targeted investment the candidate’s surrogates suggest it has in their criticism of Sanders. And although the Sanders plan does not include institutional support for private HBCUs, it arguably does as much as Clinton's to support their students while also proposing tuition-free education for the vast majority of black students—at public HBCUs (73 percent) and predominately white institutions (66 percent). To be sure, the private HBCU blind spot in Sanders’s higher-education plan is frustrating. Still, for black voters questioning the candidate’s commitment to black schools and higher education for black students more broadly, it’s worth considering the potential impact.
HBCUs have proven vital in educating black students and deserve the nation’s investment. They also warrant careful discussion. Painting HBCUs with broad strokes may make for an effective line of attack, but doing so obfuscates the multiple ways black students access education and the variety of support they require.