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Zenitha Prince, NNPA , Afro-American Newspapers
Published: 13 May 2009

WASHINGTON (NNPA) - The White House reaffirmed its commitment to historically Black colleges and universities last week in response to criticisms that arose when the proposed education budget revealed the loss of an $85 million allotment to Black institutions.

"The Administration strongly supports the critical work being done by the nation's Historically Black Colleges and Universities and understands that the system offers students from disadvantaged backgrounds the chance to continue their education," White House spokesman Corey Ealons wrote in a statement to the AFRO.

Feathers ruffled last week when education officials confirmed that the College Cost Reduction Act — a two-year program approved by Congress in 2007 that awarded additional discretionary funds to minority-serving institutions, including $85 million per year for Black institutions — was allowed to sunset.

"When that money was established as mandatory money it was not anticipated and not authorized as an ongoing program," explained Deputy Undersecretary of Education Bob Shireman during the press conference.

But given the historic and ongoing underfunding of HBCUs, advocates and school officials say, they can't afford a reduction in direct funding, especially in this economy.

"When it comes to direct funding of public HBCUs, there has been a history of these schools not getting their share compared to majority institutions," said Edith Bartley, director of government affairs at the United Negro College Fund. "… [And] when the world hurts, as it is with this economic crunch, [HBCUs] really feel it."

Radio personality and well-known HBCU advocate Tom Joyner urged the administration to rethink its decision.

"As a passionate supporter of Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), I am asking, President Barack Obama and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan to seriously reconsider cutting more than $85 million in funding to help our black colleges," Joyner wrote in an e-mailed statement. "…I know you have many priorities, but you've got to continue - and increase - the funding for HBCUs and for Pell Grants."

White House officials contend, however, that rather than decrease funding, as many reports claimed, monies for key initiatives that serve HBCUs have increased in a budget in which a vast majority of Education Department programs have received no new funding at all.

According to figures in the proposed budget, discretionary funding for HBCUs and historically Black graduate institutions —Title III, Part B of the Higher Education Act—will increase by 5 percent from $296.6 million to $311.4 million. That's "more than twice the rate of inflation," an administration official stated.

And, set-asides for HBCU capital funding will almost double from $10.4 million to $20.6 million. The official also pointed to the president's "historic investments in college affordability" as another boon to HBCUs.

The Recovery Act and the budget invest nearly $200 billion in new college tax credits and Pell Grants, which "will make a real difference for HBCU students," since half of them receive Pell Grants, the statement read.

According to the Office of Budget and Management, under the administration's proposal, students at HBCUs will gain $3.2 billion in Pell Grants over the next decade—that's about $320 million a year.

Additionally, "the budget also creates a new $2.5 billion fund to boost college access and completion, including at HBCUs, and increases the Perkins loan program six-fold to help more HBCU students get low-rate student loans."

While the UNCF applauds those attempts to increase student access, Bartley said, they are separate from the issue of discretionary funds.

"It's two different types of federal assistance so you can't compare the two," she said.

Ideally, she added, discretionary funding will not dip below the $323 million level—Bush administration allocation plus the $85 million from the College Cost Reduction Act. And, that's something for which they will lobby—an effort, administration officials say they expect.

Bartley urged Black institutions to view the budget as "just a proposal."

"We have to make sure our schools are at the table" as the budget is refined, she said. "We urge all presidents to work collectively and meet with the administration and their members of Congress; to write editorials and take every avenue to articulate their needs and how they are reflective of this administration's goal to make this nation globally competitive."

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