Last month, dozens of leaders from historically black colleges and universities across the United States met with President Trump in hopes of securing increased federal funding. During the meeting, Trump signed an executive order transferring oversight of a federal HBCU initiative from the Department of Education directly to the White House. Some saw the move as purely symbolic, others said it presaged the Trump administration’s support for HBCUs, and still others saw it as a cynical political maneuver. After all, Trump received a mere 8 percent of the black vote in November.
Prior to the meeting, the White House republished an article from McClatchy, “President Trump Seeks to Outdo Obama in Backing Black Colleges.” Barack Obama drew criticism during his presidency for failing to make HBCUs an administrative and financial priority. Paris Dennard, the senior director of strategic communications at the Thurgood Marshall College Fund, told Buzzfeed that Trump “was shocked and upset to learn what happened under the previous administration.”
Of course, many were skeptical of that concern. It didn’t help that Education Secretary Betsy DeVos incited a wave of criticism when she referred to HBCUs as “pioneers” of school choice. The remark was historically tone-deaf—HBCUs were founded in response to slavery and Jim Crow, which of course gave black Americans almost no choices. “The proof of the pudding is in the taste,” David Wilson, the president of Morgan State University, told The Washington Post in February, “and I’m not going to get excited until we see some real numbers.”
Those numbers arrived with the release of the Trump administration’s “America First” budget proposal. The budget slices federal education spending by 13.5 percent but claims to “maintain” minority institutions and HBCUs at around $492 million, the same amount the previous administration initially budgeted. But the previous administration added discretionary spending to that figure, and the New America Foundation estimates last year’s sum to be around $577 million—about 15 percent more than $492 million.
This news is disappointing for HBCU leaders—especially those who met with Trump to secure additional funding. “The case that we’ve been trying to make is that we already don’t have enough resources to do the work that needs to be done," Walter Kimbrough, the president of Dillard University, told Inside Higher Ed.
But the bigger budgetary problem arises when one considers that around 70 percent of all HBCU students rely on federal grants and work-study programs to finance their education. According to the budget proposal, in addition to significantly reducing federal work-study programs, the Trump administration plans on eliminating Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grants, which offer need-based aid to around 1.6 million low-income undergraduates each year.
In a letter to Trump’s budget director, the president of the United Negro College Fund, Michael Lomax, expressed deep concerns over cuts to federal student-aid programs. According to Lomax, the elimination of the Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grants would negatively impact more than 55,000 HBCU students, and reductions to federal work-study initiatives would limit another 26,000 students’ ability to pay for college expenses or to improve their employment prospects. “UNCF strongly urges you to reconsider these reductions, which threaten college opportunity for low-income students at HBCUs and other institutions,” Lomax wrote.
Also at stake is around $200 million in funding for federal TRIO programs, which benefit low-income and first-generation students, and the GEAR UP program, which helps prepare low-income middle- and high-school students for college. A spokesperson for the Council for Opportunity in Education told Inside Higher Ed that TRIO serves around 36,000 HBCU students and maintains a presence at nearly every HBCU in the country.
Before these budget cuts were proposed, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer reiterated Trump’s “strong commitment” to HBCUs, saying this priority would be reflected “in his budget and going forward.” Though HBCUs aren’t feeling that commitment in the new budget, there has been one small victory: The Department of Education will designate Paul Quinn College in Dallas a federal work college.
Paul Quinn is the first HBCU and first urban college to receive this recognition. U.S. work colleges are known for their unique structure: Students who live on campus are employed by the school and by community partners, with the aim of graduating students with minimal student-loan debt and with marketable skills. “This significant accomplishment allows us to expand our ability to serve our students and continue our innovative approach to higher education,” said Michael Sorrell, the president of Paul Quinn, in an email to friends and colleagues on Monday.
With the budget’s release, federal funding for Paul Quinn represents just a small step forward on a much longer road ahead for historically black colleges in the United States.