Each year as families beam with pride at seeing a son, daughter or another relative graduate from college, that achievement is nearly always the result of a family’s commitment to higher education. And when these institutions are among the more than 100 historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs), that pride is magnified by the history of how our forefathers overcame what once seemed to be insurmountable challenges.
According to the National Museum of African American History and Culture, between 1861 and 1900 more than 90 HBCUs were founded. From the first HBCU, Pennsylvania’s Cheney University, established in 1837, ensuing years led to even more educational opportunities that today include institutions spread across 19 states, the District of Columbia, and the U.S. Virgin Islands.
So when federal legislation is blocked that would extend and preserve funding for HBCUs, such actions are not only an affront to today’s college students but also to a history that has led to only 3% of the nation’s colleges and universities educating nearly 20% of all Black graduates. The success of HBCU graduates is even more noteworthy considering that 70% of students come from low-income families.
On Sept. 26, the damaging action taken by Tennessee Sen. Lamar Alexander, chair of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee blocked HBCU funding. Even worse, Alexander made this move just days before funding was set to expire on September 30.
The bill sponsored and introduced on May 2 by Alabama Sen. Doug Jones and co-sponsored by South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott, was named the FUTURE Act, an acronym for Fostering Undergraduate Talent by Unlocking Resources Act. It began with bipartisan and bicameral support to extend critical HBCU and other minority-serving institutions (MSIs) funding through 2021 for science, technology, engineering and mathematics education.
“Alabama is home to 14 outstanding HBCUs that serve as a gateway to the middle class for many first-generation, low-income, and minority Americans,” Jones said. “The FUTURE Act will help ensure these historic schools and all minority-serving institutions continue to provide excellent education opportunities for their students.”
Scott agreed, adding, “We all have a role to play in making the dream of college a reality for those who wish to pursue their education. The eight HBCUs in South Carolina have made a significant impact in our communities, creating thousands of jobs which translates to over $5 billion in lifetime earnings for their graduates.”
By Sept. 18, a total of 15 senators signed on as co-sponsors, including eight Republicans representing the additional states of Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, North Dakota, and West Virginia. Other Democratic senators signing on represented Arizona, California, Connecticut, Minnesota, Montana, Virginia and West Virginia.
On the House side, North Carolina Reps. Alma Adams and Mark Walker introduced that chamber’s version that quickly passed in just two days before Alexander’s actions on the Senate floor.
So why would the HELP Committee Chair oppose a bill that had such balanced support — in both chambers as well as geographically and by party?
“Congress has the time to do this,” Alexander said on the floor of the Senate. “While the legislation expires at the end of September, the U.S. Department of Education has sent a letter assuring Congress that there is enough funding for the program to continue through the next fiscal year.”
Alexander concluded his comments by using his remarks to push for a limited set of policy proposals that would amend the Higher Education Act piece by piece.
His comments prompt a more basic question: Why is it that Congress has failed to reauthorize the Higher Education Act (HEA) for so many years?
Competing HEA legislative proposals with different notions have been bandied about since 2014. Most of these ideas were variations of promises for improved access, affordability, and accountability, simplified financial aid applications and appropriate levels of federal support.
Yet for families faced with a financial tug of war between rising costs of college and stagnant incomes, Congress’ failure to act on higher education translates into more student loans, and longer years of repayment.
The same day as Alexander’s block of the bill, Wil Del Pilar, vice president of higher education at The Education Trust, a national nonprofit that works to close opportunity gaps that disproportionately affect students of color and students from low-income families, reacted with a statement.
“The reauthorization of the Higher Education Act (HEA) is of vital importance to millions of students who currently struggle to afford college, lack adequate supports while enrolled, and are underserved by a system that perpetuates racial inequity,” Pilar said. “Students need a federal policy overhaul that addresses these issues and acts to close racial and socioeconomic equity gaps, and they can’t afford to wait any longer.”
Ashley Harrington, a senior policy counsel with the Center for Responsible Lending, agreed.
“College is only getting more expensive every year, student borrowers are struggling to make payments, and servicers and for-profit colleges are getting free rein to mistreat their customers and students,” Harrington said. “As this crisis exacerbates the racial wealth gap and constrains an entire generation of taxpayers, we need a real plan to address these important issues. We hope Senator Alexander reconsiders his position of holding hostage funding for HBCUs, Minority Serving Institutions and the students of color that they serve.”
Senator Alexander, here’s hoping you are listening.
Charlene Crowell is the deputy communications director with the Center for Responsible Lending. She can be reached at email@example.com.