What the White House can do to help HBCUs thrive

HARI SREENIVASAN: Now: the role of America's historically black colleges, and what could, or should, be done to strengthen them.

That was on President Trump's agenda today, and is the focus of our weekly segment Making the Grade.

As part of an effort to celebrate Black History Month, President Trump signed an executive order today aimed at helping historically black colleges and universities.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: HBCUs have been really pillars of the African-American community for more than 150 years, an amazing job, and a grand and enduring symbol of American at its absolute best. With this executive order, we will make HBCUs a priority in the White House, an absolute priority.

HARI SREENIVASAN: The order will move the government's program for coordinating HBCUs back directly under the White House.

But the president didn't commit any additional funds to the schools yet, some of which are struggling financially. Many presidents of HBCUs are in Washington this week, calling for $25 billion more in the upcoming budget.

HBCUs were established after the Civil War to provide higher learning for black citizens who were deliberately shut out of most universities. Today, there are 100 HBCUS. Nearly 300,000 students are enrolled in them. Every president since Mr. Jimmy Carter has issued executive orders on HBCUS.

During President Obama's tenure, he expanded Pell Grants for schools overall, but initially approved tighter loan conditions for black colleges and never held meetings with the group. It was often a rocky relationship. A number of HBCUs still are in financial distress.

Johnny Taylor, president and CEO of Thurgood Marshall College Fund, which helps fund HBCUs, says the schools need more money collectively.

JOHNNY TAYLOR, President and CEO, Thurgood Marshall College Fund: We should be very clear that we want this administration and the 115th Congress to make good on the money. You cannot have mission without money.

HARI SREENIVASAN: After President Trump's meeting, his education secretary, Betsy DeVos, triggered some new criticism. In a statement heralding the HBCUs, she called them — quote — "real pioneers when it comes to school choice."

Critics say her statement ignores the long history of segregation for black students and the underfunding of black schools.

Let's take a closer look now at the president's executive order and the status of these schools.

For that, we're joined by Johnny Taylor, who was at the meeting and is president of the Thurgood Marshall College Fund, and Sophia Nelson. She's a journalist who follows this, and is the author of "E Pluribus ONE: Reclaiming Our Founders' Vision for a United America."

Johnny, let me start with you.

Why is it important for this initiative to be back under the White House?

JOHNNY TAYLOR: You know, at the end of the day where you live matters in so many ways, right?

When we were in the Department of Education, this office, it was three levels down. It didn't even report to the secretary of education. To me, that said volumes about what the former administration and frankly former administrations thought about HBCUs.

We judge you — more about what you say, it's about what you do. And so moving us to the White House sends the message to the entire country that HBCUs matter, and they matter to the person — frankly, the most powerful person in the country, the president of the United States.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Sophia Nelson, it's symbolic. But symbols are important. But it's not cash. And cash and funding is what a lot of these presidents are here lobbying for right now.

SOPHIA NELSON, Author, "E Pluribus ONE": Here's what I'm encouraged by.

Yesterday, in the press conference, Sean Spicer talked about they were going to do what he called a review of the agencies. Now, I happen to understand the way this works, having worked in the federal government and dealing with HBCUs, as I have in my past life as an attorney.

The money that I think they're going to find is mostly in the R&D space. They're going to look at Department of Defense and some of the other agencies. And people think defense and HBCUs? Yes, ROTC programs, for example, right?

JOHNNY TAYLOR: That's right.

SOPHIA NELSON: So, I think what the Trump administration is going to do is shrewd.

They're going to look for existing pockets of money that, under past executive orders, as you know, direct agencies to make sure that HBCUs are fully funded. And they haven't been. That's the challenge.

So, what I want America to understand is that the legislation or actually the executive action has been there consistently.

JOHNNY TAYLOR: That's right.

SOPHIA NELSON: But there is no enforcement of what the agencies are doing with the dollars.

JOHNNY TAYLOR: And that's why it matters.

SOPHIA NELSON: Therein is what I'm hopeful about, that at least they're going to take the look and say, let's find what we're doing in the agencies and let's get this money directed in where it's supposed to go.

And I really want to talk about the R&D and the FFRDCs and all the stuff that most HBCU presidents don't even know about, tragically. There is a lot of money in the R&D space. Our country spends $30 billion, with a B, a year in R&D that goes to Johns Hopkins, Stanford, Harvard, Yale.

JOHNNY TAYLOR: That's right, $1.5 billion, right.

SOPHIA NELSON: And the HBCUs get about $15 million to $30 million of that. That's tragic.

JOHNNY TAYLOR: And let me just point out, too, it's important, the executive side of the house, but ultimately the White House has a small budget. It can recommend a budget.

Ultimately, we have got to get over to Congress, which is why the first day was at the White House. The second day was the HBCU fly-in being hosted by the Republican leadership at the Library of Congress. That's what's important, because it's all going to hit.

The president releases his budget in the next six or eight weeks. And then it goes over to Congress. We have got to get the money no only authorized, but then appropriated.

SOPHIA NELSON: Let's talk about politics here a little bit, too.

If Trump is able, President Trump — let me give him his proper respect, because I was on that with Obama.

JOHNNY TAYLOR: That's right.

SOPHIA NELSON: If President Trump is able to gain ground here and show that he's able to direct moneys and come up with some of the R&D dollars and give this more of a presence, he's going to score some points with an community right now, an African-American community, that I think, after the last election, is a little bit not sure of which way to go.

JOHNNY TAYLOR: That's right. That's right.

SOPHIA NELSON: You saw this with the DNC's direction with Ellison vs. Perez.

And I think that there was — and, you know, Stephanie Rawlings-Blake wasn't reelected. And so it was interesting. African-Americans lost power, although he's vice chair.

JOHNNY TAYLOR: That's right.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Yes.

SOPHIA NELSON: There was a sense that we're the most loyal voting bloc that the Democrats have, and what are we getting for it? So Trump is being shrewd.

HARI SREENIVASAN: So, speaking of that, the state of HBCUs is something that the community was even critical of Mr. Obama, or President Obama, for pointing out.

On the plus side, it is absolutely training some of the leadership that exists in the African-American community today. And on the minus side, the graduation rates for students just aren't where you want it to be.

So, and quite a few of these schools are in deep red ink. So, how do you get them back into even a position of stability before you can get them to thrive?

JOHNNY TAYLOR: It's funny that you mention that.

That was the first thing that we asked for when we met with the president and with the congressional group this morning. It was money.

The fact of the matter is, it takes resources, significant resources, to graduate students who come out of pre-K through 12, secondary systems, where they were underprepared. You can't expect to finish — these kids come in behind.

So, our schools have an extremely heavy lift. And that lift costs money. We're not institutions with huge endowments that can put a ton of resources around getting Johnny ready so that he graduates in four years and is prepared to go into the workplace.

We might take six years. And that costs more money. So, how do you do that when you're historically underfunded, currently underfund, and you're enrolling a disproportionately high group of people who come from poor-performing K-12 systems?

SOPHIA NELSON: And I think there has to be a place for public-private partnership, companies like Intel or AT&T.

JOHNNY TAYLOR: Absolutely, who benefit from this.

SOPHIA NELSON: STEM professional companies, right, that are severely underrepresented with people that look like you and me.

JOHNNY TAYLOR: That's right.

SOPHIA NELSON: And so I think those companies need to help these colleges develop centers of excellence and things like that, that we have to start thinking out of the box, because, as you said, HBCUs don't have the endowment that the Ivies do or even some of the big schools like you or I went to. They just don't have it.

(CROSSTALK)

JOHNNY TAYLOR: That's right.

SOPHIA NELSON: And so, if there is no money, it's toothless.

But I do think that this administration is being wise to say, look, the executive orders, like I said, starting with President Herbert Walker Bush forward, they have all directed the money there, but it's not flowing towards…

(CROSSTALK)

JOHNNY TAYLOR: Well, it's not been appropriated. That's the issue.

HARI SREENIVASAN: But how do you make sure that this doesn't become toothless and it doesn't — because you still need the face time. You still need the time to talk to the secretaries of education and all these different departments to say, hey, here's those R&D dollars that could come this way, too.

JOHNNY TAYLOR: That's the number one thing.

That's why it's so important to be in the White House. When they're having these staff meetings, when everybody is going over to meet with the president, they have got the walk past that White House initiative on HBCUs.

It's far easier for them not to think about it, because out of sight, out of mind, when they're sitting three levels down at the Department of Education.

So, for the people who question why it's so important, it's not about an address in many ways. It's about who else is at that address that you're moving too.

HARI SREENIVASAN: All right, Johnny Taylor, Sophia Nelson, thank you both.

SOPHIA NELSON: Thank you.

JOHNNY TAYLOR: Thank you.

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