New White House Strategy for HBCUs: Help Employers Fill Jobs

The Trump administration is taking a new tack when it comes to Historically Black Colleges and Universities, laying out a plan Tuesday that seeks to better align the schools and their graduates with the needs of employers.

In doing so, Trump announced at the White House late Tuesday that he’s tapped Johnny C. Taylor Jr., the president and CEO or the Society for Human Resource Management and former president and CEO of the Thurgood Marshall College Fund, to head the operation.

“Today’s organizations all share the same challenge: closing the skills gap while building diverse, inclusive, engaged workforces,” said Taylor, whose official title is chairman of the President’s Board of Advisors on Historically Black Colleges and Universities. “For each of them, the war for talent, as we’ve come to call it, will never end.”

He continued: “Employers depend on our country’s education institutions as a reliable source of the multifaceted talent they need. HBCUs are a critical conduit for this talent. Every year, over 300,000 students turn to these institutions, HBCUs, for their education and to prepare them for their careers. This president’s advisory board can be a nexus between higher educational institutions and employers.”

Taylor said he’ll use his position as the head of SHRM, the world’s largest human resources association with 285,000 members, to facilitate a steady pipeline of HBCU graduates to employers looking to fill positions.

“At SHRM we are the experts on people and work and building powerfully diverse organizational cultures that drive success,” Taylor said. “By working together, across all sectors – the HR profession, HBCUs and this advisory board – we can strengthen the relationship between education and employers. We call it the two Es.”

“This advisory board,” Taylor continued, “can facilitate this critical relationship and support innovations and work-based learning opportunities for HBCU students and, as the world’s largest human resources organization and association, SHRM can now work with CEOs to connect industry to the diverse talent at our wonderful HBCU institutions.”

It’s unclear how, exactly, the plan will unfold, but it aligns with the administration’s increased emphasis on filling the 6 million jobs currently open.

“This board has an incredible opportunity to highlight HBCUs as the wellsprings of the diverse talent American employers want and need today,” Taylor said.

Notably, the announcement is the first to address the HBCU sector since September, a long, six-month stretch of silence that came in the wake of a somewhat awkward National HBCU Week Conference – an annual event hosted by the White House that last year was significantly scaled back when college presidents dropped out after the president suggested there were “fine people” that participated in a Charlottesville, Virginia, rally attended by Ku Klux Klan members, neo-Nazis and white supremacists.

That event last year was just the latest thread in a strained relationship between the HBCUs and the Trump administration, which the HBCU community says has been quick to make big promises but slow to follow through.

HBCUs have been struggling with ways to increase their visibility and stress to the public just how important their institutions are, not only to students of color but to the country as a whole. While they comprise just 3 percent of all higher education offerings, HBCUs have an outsized impact on the success of African-Americans, accounting for more than 20 percent of degrees earned by African-Americans.

Like the rest of the higher education industry, they’re reeling from rising costs, declining enrollment and a host of other obstacles – trends that tend to have a concentrated effect on HBCUs, which primarily serve low-income and first-generation students who rely more heavily on student loans and who are also in need of more remedial education.

Exactly who is ready to lend them a hand, however, is not exactly clear. Many HBCU presidents aren’t confident the Trump administration, which sends mixed messages at best and at worst is outright insulting, is really listening to their calls for help.

To be sure, one of the first executive orders Trump signed as president physically moved the HBCU initiative from the Department of Education into the White House – a move the HBCU community had long asked for in order to increase its visibility.

Trump reiterated those actions at the White House on Tuesday, reaffirming his commitment to the sector.

“This is very important,” he repeated several times. “Very important to me and the administration.”

But HBCU presidents and their supporters say the administration has sent mixed messages. It challenged the constitutionality of the HBCU Capital Investment Fund, for example, and took an unprecedented seven months to name an executive director for the White House HBCU Initiative.

DeVos, for her part, made headlines last year for calling HBCUs “real pioneers when it comes to school choice” in a speech to HBCU presidents. She addressed a group of HBCU presidents earlier Tuesday, but the event, which was hosted by the Thurgood Marshall College Fund, was closed to the press.

“This administration seeks to provide educational opportunity for all students, especially those underserved and marginalized,” DeVos said at the White House event Tuesday. “HBCUs play a very important role in American education. Under President Trump’s leadership in uplifting and supporting HBCUs, we are taking important steps to ensure HBCUs and the students they serve remain influential players in their communities and in our country.”