Commentary

Trump's Election Is an Opportunity for HBCUs, if They Can Take It

November 16, 2016

Recently I watched a short video by Lavell Crump, better known as the rapper David Banner. In his postelection reflection, he urged his fans not to panic about the results. He then offered what some might perceive as a controversial assessment. Banner suggested that Donald J. Trump’s election might be the best thing ever to happen to black people because there would be no excuse for their not engaging in building communities. He spoke about reading more, improving speaking skills, being more involved in the entire electoral process starting locally, and in general assuming greater leadership to speak about issues that affect African-Americans.

Banner’s comments have great utility for historically black colleges and universities, and offer an appropriate challenge for that sector and its students, parents, supporters, and alumni. Part of the disappointment with the Obama presidency that some people have expressed stemmed from an expectation that he would solve many of the challenges facing HBCUs. In fairness, many sat back and expected him to right every wrong going back to 1619, when the first Africans were enslaved in Britain’s North American colonies.

The president provided tremendous support with a new Title III initiative providing nearly $1 billion in new funding for HBCUs, and his presence (and, even more so, the presence of Michelle Obama) at HBCUs during commencement season was inspiring for tens of thousands of people on those campuses. The images of the Obamas on our campuses meant a great deal to those who experienced it (as we did at Dillard with Mrs. Obama in 2014).

However, many colleges are still attempting to recover from changes in the Parent PLUS program that led to enrollment losses. In fact, that change affected low-income students of all races and corresponded to an overall decline in college enrollment since it was carried out.

As for a President Trump, HBCUs, like all of higher education, have no clue what this will mean. The president-elect made only one passing reference to HBCUs in a speech, late in the campaign, but he offered no policy positions; neither did the Republican Party’s platform. The America’s College Promise Act, backed by the United Negro College Fund, proposes free public tuition and support for all HBCUs, but it does not appear to be part of the Trump agenda.

Trump’s views align somewhat with Republicans and with colleges over the enormous amount of regulation of higher education. It seems likely that there may be relief from some of the more onerous regulations that evolved in the Obama administration. The HBCU community would not miss the College Scorecard and subsequent policies based on its scoring. (The Scorecard is better than the initially proposed rating system, but it still does not fully credit HBCUs for the difficulty they face in serving a disproportionate number of higher-needs students.)

There would also be fairly uniform support across all sectors of higher education if regulations carrying out the Fair Labor Standards Act are delayed or even reassessed, as they will have a disproportionately negative impact on many smaller institutions, like HBCUs, which struggle to control costs.

One troubling speculation about a Trump presidency concerns the student-loan industry, notably as it relates to the Parent PLUS loan program. If simply changing the scoring of the loans means that hundreds of millions of dollars become unavailable for students and families, causing students to drop out, abolishing the program will be disastrous. That would follow the current phasing out of the Perkins loan program, which serves half a million students annually.

So the HBCU community should heed the words of David Banner. The election of Donald Trump is a tremendous opportunity to launch a renaissance of black colleges. To do that, the entire HBCU community should support major lobbying groups like the UNCF, the Thurgood Marshall College Fund, and the National Association for Equal Opportunity in Higher Education, as they work with the new administration to provide support for these institutions. Supporters must actively engage lawmakers in Congress to advocate for legislative priorities.

This election also means that the role of HBCU alumni must be greater than ever, beginning with much more robust levels of giving to support the institutions. The potential loss of funding through the Parent PLUS loan, along with the phasing out of the Perkins loan and the lagging value of the Pell Grant, means that private dollars will be even more necessary to help HBCU students. Seventy percent of those students receive Pell Grants (twice the national average); the need is real.

Finally, HBCUs’ governing boards need to select and fully support presidents. The current revolving door at too many HBCUs creates a leadership vacuum that places campuses in peril. During the 1960s, HBCUs were well served by long-term leaders. We need that type of stable leadership today in a very uncertain era.

Walter M. Kimbrough is president of Dillard University.