Just in time: Obama targets HBCUs for increased spending

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(NNPA)—As the proud graduate of an Historically Black University and having worked in one for most of my academic career, I approve of President Barack Obama having broken his pledge not to govern by race or ethnicity just in time to increase spending for HBCUs. These institutions are still vitally relevant to the production of a Black middle class because, while they only constitute 3 percent of all institutions of higher education, they graduate 20 percent of all Black undergrads.

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Announcing current increases in the FY 2012 Federal Budget was Dr. John S. Wilson, the new executive director of the White House Initiative on HBCUs, who said that the president’s budget includes a $17 billion increase in Pell Grants, $400 million of which was earmarked for HBCUs. Last year, there was an uproar when it was discovered that the president took $85 million from the HBCU budget, but this year, rather than mandating it for two years as the Bush administration had done, this sum is included in the President Obama’s budget for 10 years.

There is also $98 million in new money proposed for HBCUs that would fund such things as financing for capital costs such as the repair and replacement of educational facilities and equipment, and the building of physical infrastructure. There is also proposed $65.4 million for the enhancement of graduate programs.

Wilson indicated that there is also $400 million of additional funds in the education budget for institutions whose description was close that of HBCUs some of which he intends to attempt to acquire. One of the greatest areas of lack of growth in the federal budget, however, has been in the funds generated by the government which goes to research at institutions of higher education. Some of it, in such areas as energy, defense or agriculture, requires sophisticated engineering or scientific research facilities that most of these institutions do not have, but other grants in the social, administrative, and economic areas should be achievable.

This funding increase is also welcome news in light of the current economic crisis that threatens to continue the laggard growth of the Black middle class. The unemployment and home foreclosure crises put at severe risk the kind of capital that has enabled Black families to fund college enrollment in the previous generation and so many in this generation have a far more difficult time acquiring enrollment, remaining enrolled and potentially graduating. While some observers have been focused on academic performance as the major factor in Black college retention rates, economic factors have always been as important.

The general increase in higher education funding will help those in non-HBCU institutions as well. The other shoe to drop has been the fact that most Black youths are in state supported institutions, either four-year institutions or community colleges, and state governments have chosen to cut education budgets deeply to balance their budgets. This has caused a rise in the tuition rates, teacher furloughs and curriculum reductions at many institutions.

In most states, the education budget is the largest funded item and cuts in places such as California have recently drawn very visible protests from students and faculty. Federal funds given to states from the bank bailout have disproportionately gone to support K-12, such that while the latter has suffered a 3 percent decrease in funding in California, higher education has suffered a 5 percent decrease.

While states are grappling for solutions to the problem of overall funding, I would suggest they should look at the amount of spending involved in holding nonviolent offenders in prisons. Some states are now beginning to look at alternatives to incarceration more seriously than when they were just theoretical possibilities and some are actually letting prisoners go.

The state of California is typical of many where funding for the prison system has now overshadowed funding on education, a situation that is not sustainable in terms of future economic development of the state or balancing its budget. While the governor says that now California spends 10 percent on prisons and 7 percent on higher education, the most alarming trend is that higher education spending has been declining since the tax limitation wars of the 1970s. It is time to break out of Republican-think-about-taxes and raise some revenue to fund higher education so that localities are not as dependent upon the federal government.

Meanwhile, Mr. President, thanks for the help for HBCUs in this crisis.

(Dr. Ron Walters is a political analysts and professor emeritus at the University of Maryland College Park.)

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