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Executive order on HBCUs launches Trump's "New Deal for Black America"

On February 1st, Donald Trump kicked off Black History Month with a renewed effort to connect with the Black American communities that he has struggled to court throughout his campaign and early presidency. Convened by one of Trump’s top communications advisers, Omarosa Manigault, the event will likely be remembered for Trump’s strange semi-tribute to Frederick Douglass, but it also generated reports of an imminent executive order on the funding of historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs).

Speculation followed over the next weeks about the impending executive order’s content, and was laid to rest by a meeting this Monday between Trump and HBCU leaders. The order, signed on Tuesday, will transfer administration of the White House Initiative on HBCUs from the Education Department to the White House itself. The switch is intended to facilitate HBCU contact with the President and his senior aides, and was one of two suggestions from the Thurgood Marshall College Fund, which supports 54 institutions including the 47 publicly-funded HBCUs, and the United Negro College Fund.

The other recommendation, which didn't make it into the order, was an new "aspirational" funding goal. HBCUs have been plagued with insufficient (and sometimes discriminatory) funding since their beginnings. Recognizing this over the past decades, numerous federal efforts to close the funding gap between HBCUs and primarily white institutions (PWIs) have developed, among the most notable being the 1980 Executive Order signed by President Carter that first established the White House Initiative on HBCUs. In FY2017, HBCUs are slated to receive $85 million in mandatory funds from the federal government, as well as a discretionary $244.7 million in Title III funds. Still, state funding disparities, lower rates of enrollment, smaller endowments than PWIs, and state desegregation efforts have left HBCUs with fewer programs, deteriorating facilities, and an overall financial crisis.

In spite of these historical inequities and current funding challenges, HBCUs continue to award more professional and STEM degrees to Black college students than PWIs.  Though PWIs boast higher overall bachelor’s completion rates (47% as opposed to HBCUs’ 32%), HBCUs confer about 15% of all bachelor’s degrees awarded to Black students attending four-year institutions, even though they only enroll about 8% of them. HBCUs also enroll higher proportions of students who receive Pell Grants, serving more first-generation and low-income students than the average PWI. Simply put, HBCUs render an important service to marginalized students. Policymakers should do what’s needed to help them keep boosting college access and opportunity, and should carefully scrutinize any order that claims to do so.

Moving the White House Initiative on HBCUs will ideally provide more direct access to the President and thus, supposedly, more opportunities to increase institutional funding through federal grants and contracts. According to President Trump, the Obama Administration’s work with HBCUs “lost track because they didn’t have the full force of the White House behind it", referencing President Obama’s troubled relationship with HBCU leaders, who chafed at his restrictions on Parent PLUS loans, which were later revised in response to the backlash. Other HBCU leaders, as well as non-profit advocates for HBCUs and members of the Congressional Black Caucus, also took issue with Obama’s gainful employment accountability measures, accusing them of needlessly reducing college access to underserved students, especially minorities and those with lower incomes.

Acting in any way to strengthen HBCUs could help President Trump fulfill his campaign promises to “Urban America” -- a coded term for Black Americans. But while moving the White House Initiative on HBCUs to the White House could open new lines of communication between HBCUs and the Administration, no concrete funding goals have been set, nor any initiatives actually guaranteed, except to “increase the private-sector role” in supporting HBCUs. Institutions' presidents and administrators -- particularly at HBCUs with smaller endowments and lower enrollments -- could still have their work cut out for them to secure enough grants and partnerships to effect substantial change.

With supplemental funding for HBCUs in the hands of the executive branch, moreover, campuses may have to tread carefully around a temperamental and often insensitive administration. Donald Trump has already threatened financial punishments for college campuses and city governments that irk him: UC Berkeley did that with its response to student protests against Milo Yiannopoulos, as have several other cities and campuses by declaring themselves sanctuaries for undocumented immigrants, which Howard University students protesting Betsy DeVos’ campus visit advocated for as well. There is little doubt that Donald Trump would try to wield such influence against HBCUs like Howard if so inclined.

Finally, increased funding to HBCUs may not significantly improve overall postsecondary success if the Administration moves forward with Republican lawmakers’ touted deregulation of postsecondary education, rolling back the Obama Administration’s “heavy-handedness” with regard to the for-profit sector. Eliminating borrower protections and weakening or abolishing gainful employment metrics place for-profit college students, who are disproportionately students of color, at risk of becoming cripplingly indebted for dubious credentials from unscrupulous providers. Though not as outrageous as Betsy DeVos’s retooling of HBCU history into a paean to student choice, returning impunity to poor-performing postsecondary programs in the name of access or student choice needlessly endangers America’s least-served students.

HBCU leaders and students will have a lot to consider as the new order comes into effect, and observers will need to keep a close eye on its outcomes. Transferring control of the White House Initiative on HBCUs -- and noncommittal promises of third-party funding -- will not be enough for President Trump to fulfill the educational promises made in his campaign to Black Americans. Increased funding for Pell Grants, the maintenance of robust financial and performance accountability measures, and the continued existence of the Office for Civil Rights will be crucial to ensuring the equitable access to education that the Trump Administration claims to support. In the meantime, there will be plenty to watch as HBCUs and the Administration navigate this new relationship.