WASHINGTON, D.C. – The west lawn of the U.S. Capitol teemed with people who all held a common goal in mind.
The group of students, faculty, alumni and supporters of Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) gathered on April 27 to demand funding from Congress that would help their beloved schools survive and thrive in the coming years.
Armed with pamphlets full of information, water bottles and snacks, the advocates prepared to spend the day giving speeches and meeting with members of Congress to explain their stance and hopefully spark the creation of new policy. Organized by the HBCU Collective, a network of alumni and students who work in politics and advocacy, the day was dubbed “HBCU National Day of Action” and called on supporters around the country to get involved.
“I want to make sure today our HBCUs are at the forefront, that we’re taking the torch from our (university) presidents,” said Krishana Davis, one of the co-leaders of the HBCU Collective. “It is time for us to talk to our members of Congress to ensure that our universities and their histories will continue to be preserved and they will continue to grow.”
Since the first of these schools was founded in 1837, HBCUs have been important and even necessary for the education of millions of African Americans. After the end of slavery in the United States, African Americans were still excluded from most opportunities, especially higher education. Despite the culture and laws that prohibited them from attending most universities, many African Americans still believed that a college education was necessary for the advancement of the community as a whole and began creating their own schools.
Today, there are 101 accredited HBCUs that make up 3 percent of the nation’s public and private colleges.
Over time, African American enrollment at HBCUs has begun to decline. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, among black students enrolled in college, in 2014 only 8 percent were enrolled at HBCUs compared to 18 percent in 1976. This decline has created serious financial problems for many schools that are struggling to update and maintain their facilities, promote research and offer sufficient scholarships to eligible students.
“We gave birth to the notion that our people deserve a way forward, that our ‘next’ must always be better than our ‘now’,” said Dr. Michael Sorrell, president of Paul Quinn College in Texas. “We are here today because that notion is being threatened. None of us are here today to ask for pity. We are here to talk about partnerships.”
Sorrell specifically highlighted the need for year-round Pell grants and a restructuring of student loan rates as major concerns for black students struggling to afford college at HBCUs. He also noted that an increase in research funding was crucial for students to creatively and innovatively solve some of the problems in their communities.
Students were urged by the HBCU Collective to open up to Congress members about the difficulties they faced in school, specifically focusing on financial aid, research funds for STEM majors and the absence of certain cutting edge technologies. The students were encouraged to speak candidly in order to truly paint a picture of what it is like to attend an HBCU and how beneficial an increase in funding could be.
“I’ve been at Morgan (State University) for seven years and I rarely have bad days, but I have two bad days every year. Those bad days occur when we have to come to about three to 400 students who are making meaningful academic progress and tell them ‘We’re sorry, you have to go home,” said Dr. David Wilson, president of Morgan State University. “That should not happen in America. That should not happen when we are asking students to do everything they can to break the cycle of poverty and they are, but we still cannot provide them with the financial wherewithal to get their degree.”
Wilson said that while other predominately white institutions receive billions of dollars in funding and research grants, many HBCUs only get “crumbs.” Because of this, Wilson said it is impossible for predominately black colleges to compete with more heavily funded schools, putting HBCUs and their students at risk.
After a rousing press conference from the leaders of the HBCU Collective and the presidents of several HBCUs, the participants left to attend four hours of meetings with various members of Congress. Students, faculty, alumni and supporters met with representatives from all over the country to voice their concerns and push for legislation that addressed the schools’ funding issues.
Several members of Congress joined the HBCU Collective and the participants, advocating on behalf of the group and agreeing to work within their districts to get things done. Congresswoman Alma Adams (NC-12), co-chair of the Bipartisan HBCU Caucus, was one of several legislators who came to speak to the crowd. An alumna of an HBCU herself, North Carolina A&T, she knew all too well the need for more funding in predominately black schools.
“I stand here today as a living testament of what HBCUs do and have always done for students who simply need an opportunity like I did,” Adams said. “North Carolina A&T changed my life. They took a poor black girl from the ghetto of New Jersey, made me a first generation student and provided me with the educational foundation and support I needed to earn my degree.”
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