Members of Congress, educational advocates, and college students packed a meeting room on Capitol Hill on April 28 to launch a new group devoted to promoting and protecting the interests of the nation's Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs). Members of the Bipartisan Congressional Historically Black Colleges and Universities Caucus say their mission will involve addressing the unique challenges that HBCUs face and creating a national dialogue about solutions.
Nationwide, there are 105 HBCUs—including Spelman, Tuskegee, Morehouse, Howard and Hampton universities—that collectively enroll more than 300,000 students annually. “I was a professor for 40 years at Bennett College and I'm an alumnus of an HBCU—North Carolina A & T," said Congresswoman Alma S. Adams, a North Carolina Democrat, who will co-chair the caucus with Congressman Bradley Byrne, a Republican from Alabama. Adams noted that her mother cleaned houses to help put her through college, and added, "I know the impact that these schools have on students, particularly those from the most underserved communities.”
HBCUs represent 3 percent of colleges and universities, yet graduate 20 percent of African-Americans with undergraduate degrees. These institutions also graduate significant numbers (about 25 percent) of African-American degree holders in science, technology, engineering and math fields. Yet despite their rich legacy, and the many success stories they have engendered for well over a century, the schools face specific obstacles that demand particular attention—among them, high percentages of students who require financial aid.
National data shows Black and low-income students borrow more, and more often, to receive a bachelor’s degree, even at public institutions. While less than two-thirds (63 percent) of White graduates from public schools borrow, four-in-five (81 percent) of Black graduates do so, according to reports. “Confronted with declining levels of federal support and regulatory threats, we welcome these Congressional champions who will help us," said Dr. Michael L. Lomax, President and CEO of the United Negro College Fund, who was among those present for the kick-off. "[We must] fight for needed federal investments in HBCUs and in the thousands of first-generation, low-income, students of color that we serve."
Donna M. Owens is a Baltimore-based journalist specializing in politics and health.