Faced with a sluggish economy and a state budget he once described as "flat" during a faculty meeting, Lincoln University President Ivory Nelson is in a bind like most Black college heads: just getting by. And like others in his situation, Nelson is deeply troubled that federal support for Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU) is nominal.
"If you look at HBCUs as a whole, we receive 3 percent of the overall college population," notes Nelson, a Grambling University graduate in his 11th year as Lincoln's President. "But, we graduate 25 percent of all African Americans receiving a college degree. You don't want to lose that 25 percent — in fact, you want to increase it."
Addressing those concerns, the Obama administration recently rolled out its White House HBCU Initiative in a bit of fanfare during Congressional Black Caucus week, a follow-up to Executive Order 13532 signed in February that directs $850 million to HBCUs during the next 10 years.
Overall, the spending has been viewed as a boost, with the President committing $100 million more than in previous years.
White House HBCU Initiative Executive Director John S. Wilson Jr. is optimistic, describing the effort as "more empowered" when comparing it to previous administrations since President Jimmy Carter launched the program by Executive Order in 1980.
Wilson sees a holistic approach taking form. "Out of the $120 billion in higher education funding, 4 percent of that is going to HBCUs," argues Wilson when asked what makes the current President's initiative different.
Yet, funding parity becomes a major issue when talking with HBCU supporters who describe a lack of federal funding to Black schools for research and development grants, a pot of gold for institutions seeking to enhance prestige and attract additional funding.
"There is a gap when the better funded White institutions get the larger piece of the pie for R&D," observes one White House Initiative board member speaking anonymously.
And critics express concern that community colleges, two-year institutions serving a large share of minority students, are getting federal dollars that could be shifted to full-degree four-year HBCUs. Nelson cited HBCU competition with community colleges as an "issue."
Wilson contends the money is there. "There's too much money to say we've got money flowing away from HBCUs," Wilson says. "We have a more informed and sensitive perspective when it comes to HBCUs and we are better resourced. Of the $40 billion in Pell Grants, a disproportionate share goes to HBCU students."
Cheyney University President Michelle Howard-Vital also appears upbeat. "I think we have a renewed opportunity with this president to state the case for HBCUs," says Howard-Vital.
Other HBCU presidents like Nelson are also encouraged, but there is hesitation. "$850 million is a good start, but it's not enough. It is over 10 years, spread out over many different schools."
And, it remains unclear how much Members of Congress are helping to marshal resources for HBCUs in their states and districts. Democrats are generally supportive of HBCU efforts, particularly when pushed by a unified effort from the Congressional Black Caucus, which Wilson says works closely with his office. But, there is the usual pushback from Republicans who argue HBCU funding is "affirmative action" straining an already tight federal budget.
Pennsylvania-delegation Members such as Rep. Joe Sestak (D-Pa.), whose 7th District houses Cheyney, were difficult to reach for comment. Yet, Howard-Vital heaps praise on Sestak for finding nearly $2 million in federal funding for science programs and scholarships. But, there is concern that Sen. Robert Casey, Jr. (D-Pa.) has yet to visit Cheney or Lincoln's campus.
"Senator Specter has been here on several occasions," says Howard-Vital of Cheyney. "Sen. Casey's Chief of Staff has been here. But, I would like more interface with him."
Casey's office claims the Senator has been instrumental in securing federal dollars for HBCUs, including $255 million annually supporting "minority-serving" institutions. "Senator Casey met with Dr. Howard-Vital when she was in DC this summer," notes Casey press secretary Stephanie Zarecky. "Senator Casey's office also worked closely with Cheyney [for] the hearing he chaired on college affordability at Temple University last year."
Marybeth Gasman, an Associate Professor of Higher Education at the University of Pennsylvania and a national expert on HBCUs, sees a much more "centralized" effort under the Obama administration. "The current HBCU Initiative is much better organized," says Glasman. "Obama realized that the Initiative was not as centralized as it could be and so he asked the current director to pool the resources of all of the agencies — basically making them more accessible to HBCUs."
Still, the funding stream could be more robust argues Glasman. "It's a start, but I think more could be done. HBCUs have long been underfunded at every level. Critics say that HBCUs are inferior, but they never discuss the unequal support at all levels that has existed from their inception through the current day."