President Donald Trump recently announced 13 new appointees to the President’s Board of Advisors on Historically Black Colleges and Universities. Bennett College President Phyllis Dawkins is among them. At Bennett, established to educate freedmen and train teachers in Greensboro, N.C., in 1873, Dawkins has strong views on what such institutions and their students need from the federal government.
“We know we need funding to invest in our facilities and infrastructure,” says Dawkins. “But on the student side, we also need additional funding to help out with students as they meet financial aid and tuition challenges. So overall, we need to be able to meet the needs of low income, first generation students and look at how we can foster a climate of success on our campus.”
The president’s board was established in 1989 by President George H.W. Bush. Among other things, it advises the education secretary, and issues an annual plan for assistance for HBCUs and makes recommendations to the president on how to make them stronger. Dawkins says money would be a big help to the schools and students alike.
“We need to look, as always, to increase the amount of money and Pell [grants]. … I think there’s a difference between interest rates that are levied against HBCU students and other students at majority white institutions,” Dawkins says. “We need to look at how students can be successful, complete four years in higher education and get a degree—and what are the barriers for obtaining a degree.”
Dawkins says closing the funding gap for HBCUs is important because money is the No. 1 reason that students leave school before graduating. She thinks institutions serving students of color share a common need, no matter where they are located in the nation.
“I worked at public and private institutions. I worked in the North and in the South and I would say the commonality is that our students need funding to help close the gap between the cost to attend and the amount of federal financial aid that’s awarded,” Dawkins explains. “Another commonality is that for most HBCU students, the average family income is between 35 and 40 thousand dollars … so they always have financial challenges that are a barrier to completion.”
At the Thurgood Marshall College Fund, President and CEO Harry Williams tells The Root that he is excited about working with this board. It is chaired by Johnny Taylor Jr., who formerly held Williams’ position at TMCF.
“I think this board is very diverse with a wide variety of individuals that understand and can support the HBCUs in a very positive way,” Williams says, “and communicate that message to the current administration in a way that will benefit our schools.”
Aminta Breaux, president of Bowie State University in Maryland, says she is very pleased and honored to be a part of the President’s Board of Advisors on HBCUs. She notes that the university was the first historically black institution in the state, dating back to 1865, and that it has a long and rich history of preparing students to serve their communities, including the workplace. Breaux says she’s excited to get the word out about the importance of HBCUs.
“I want to raise awareness about the value of our historically black colleges and universities … and I don’t believe that the history is as well known as it should be. That includes preparing generations of learners to contribute to their communities,” Breaux explains. “We’re this wonderful resource. … We’re graduating outstanding students who are serving in business and government and industry.”
Breaux says HBCUs need to build partnerships and form relationships between industry and business leaders, particularly around technological companies such as Apple to ensure that students are connected with employers that are looking to hire them.
“I think this is yet another opportunity for us to see more strategies and bring education and industry partners together to solve a critical issue facing this country and that is diversity in the workplace,” Breaux says. “I believe the huge value that we provide to the workplace is known. We are just about 3 percent of all the colleges and universities in this country, yet we are producing about 25 percent of the minority degrees especially in the STEM area and that’s a huge need for our country.”
There have been some challenging moments with the Trump administration, including what many described as an awkward photo op with HBCU leaders back in 2017. But the leaders have continued their strategy of engaging with the president and Republicans, and both Breaux and Dawkins think it is beginning to pay off.
“I believe you have to have a dialogue. You have to have conversations,” Breaux explains. “I believe the president is focused on improving the conditions with our corporate and business entities and that includes diversity and ensuring that we continue to address that critical need. If we don’t, we’re going to continue to fall behind other countries, and that’s a common goal that we not have that happen.”
By Allison Keyes