Is the White House betraying a promise to HBCUs?
On the morning of February 27, more than 70 presidents of historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) stood in a West Wing corridor, waiting to enter the Oval Office. The meeting with President Donald Trump would be historic—the first time that the head of every HBCU in the country had been invited to meet with the president at the White House. Top aides Kellyanne Conway, Stephen Bannon, Stephen Miller, and Reince Preibus mixed and mingled with the group. According to Morgan State University president David Wilson, who was among those attending, Bannon voiced a promise: “If you give us a plan, we will execute it.” The implication was clear, Wilson says: Tell us what resources HBCUs need and the administration will find a way to pay for them in Trump’s budget.
The Oval Office meeting was one of many conversations and phone calls since Election Day between HCBU presidents, leaders of HBCU advocacy groups, and the Trump White House. Earlier that day, the White House had promoted a newspaper story headlined “President Trump Seeks to Outdo Obama in Backing Black Colleges,” which alluded to a plan for “historic” support for the schools. The next day, Trump signed an executive order that relocated a federal office devoted to helping fund and support black colleges from the Department of Education into the White House.
“We will make HBCUs a priority in the White House,” Trump said at the signing, “an absolute priority.”
“What we see now certainly does not meet my definition of substantial investment.”
But for leaders and advocates of these institutions, the release of Trump’s budgetin late May did nothing of the sort. Not only was there no new funding for HBCUs in the budget, Trump called for slashing millions of dollars from federal programs that also support degree programs at the schools. Trump’s plan appeared to boost Pell grants by extending their use to year-round—but meanwhile called for taking away $5 billion-plus in reserves from the Pell program and cutting at least $1.5 billion from other federal financial aid programs, including work study. Taken together, these cuts would disproportionately affect low-income students at black colleges, and cost the schools millions in revenue.
“The perception that many HBCU presidents were operating under was that the administration was making a commitment to follow up with a substantial investment in the institutions,” Wilson told me recently. “What we see now certainly does not meet my definition of substantial investment.”
“The budget doesn’t match” earlier messaging from the White House, said Walter Kimbrough, the president of Dillard University. “I’ll be interested to see how members of his team will say this undergirds his recent support for HBCUs. At least for Dillard, I can say it’s a loss.”
Advocates were further perplexed by Trump and questioned his commitment when he suggested in a statement in early May that special funding for black colleges could be unconstitutional. (After his comments drew a backlash, Trump expressed his “unwavering support” for HBCUs again in another statement.)
According to HBCU advocates, the Trump administration’s outreach has been spearheaded by senior communications aide Omarosa Manigault and Ja’Ron Smith, who leads urban renewal efforts on Trump’s domestic policy team. Manigualt and Smith, who are Howard University graduates, did not respond to requests for comment.
Early this year, HBCU advocacy groups jointly proposed a plan for federal funding to the Trump administration. They asked that two key Department of Education programs that support HBCUs be funded at $500 million, the maximum level permitted by Congress, and that the Trump administration commit to increasing for HBCUs the percentage of grants and contracts reserved for institutions of higher education in the federal budget. They argued passionately that HBCUs could play a key role in a Trump plan to create new opportunities for African Americans: The schools have an outsize impact, enrolling eight percent of all black college students in America and producing approximately 15 percent of those who earn bachelor’s degrees. (The nation’s approximately 100 HBCUs constitute three percent of the nation’s colleges and universities.) The schools also graduate large numbers of first-generation college students; roughly 70 percent of the more than 290,000 students enrolled at HBCUs are low-income—more than twice the rate for college students nationally. Howard University is especially known for its many graduates who become lawyers, dentists, doctors, and engineers.
Johnny Taylor, president of the Thurgood Marshall College Fund, says the news about Trump’s budget hasn’t been all bad—HBCUs were mostly insulated from a proposed 13 percent across-the-board cut hitting the Department of Education, which supplies the majority of federal funding to HCBUs. Even being able to retain that core funding under Trump “is something that our community should celebrate,” Taylor says.
Making matters worse, Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos described HBCUs in a statement as “real pioneers when it comes to school choice.”
But Kimbrough sees that as “moving the goal posts,” especially after promise was in the air from the White House. He and Wilson told Mother Jones that the other cuts, including those to financial aid programs, could cost their schools six- or possibly even seven-figure sums in revenue, and would impact hundreds of their schools’ students. “When you take away any money from any of the students that are on Pell Grants or coming from limited resource families, you are putting them closer and closer to going back home,” Wilson said. Even with as little as a few hundred dollars per semester—”those dollars actually mean the world for our students.”
For many HBCU families, “it’s a sacrifice to get students to go to school,” Kimbrough said. So even relatively small cuts in federal aid can be devastating for them. Morgan State already spends around 15 percent of its budget on financial aid—a larger percentage than any other college in Maryland, according to Wilson; the school simply can’t afford to subsidize cuts to government aid for more students.
Even after the first Trump budget proposal in March, skepticism was already stirring about the promises from the Trump White House. “This budget proposal is not a new deal for African Americans,” Congressional Black Caucus chairman and Morehouse College alumnus Cedric Richmond said, speaking broadly of Trump’s first budget proposal, which proposed lesser cuts to HBCU funding than the May version. “It’s a raw deal that robs the poor and the middle-class to pay the richest of the rich.”