Democrats taking debate stage at TSU promise billions for schools like it

WASHINGTON — When the Democratic presidential hopefuls take the debate stage at Texas Southern University on Thursday, they’re likely to tout a range of policy proposals designed to woo people on campuses like it: Free college, student debt forgiveness and more.

But several of them will also have a rare opportunity to pitch policies their campaigns have tailored to historically black colleges and universities like Texas Southern. At least five candidates — half of those who qualified for the third debate — have proposed major funding boosts, most in the tens of billions, for the schools, all part of their effort to court black voters.

Sen. Kamala Harris, an HBCU graduate herself, has proposed the most, at $60 billion. Sen. Elizabeth Warren pledged $50 billion for the schools, if she wins. South Bend, Ind. Mayor Pete Buttigieg says he would give them $25 billion. Julián Castro, meanwhile, has said he’d boost their funding by $3 billion a year.

“There has been a lot of talk around HBCUs — early — which is positive and surprising to me,” said Marybeth Gasman, director of the Center for Minority Serving Institutions at the University of Pennsylvania. “I do think that candidates have finally realized the power of the black population in elections and also the strength that HBCUs bring to our economy and educational abilities as a nation.”

HBCUs represent just 3 percent of colleges in the nation, but award 17 percent of all bachelor’s degrees earned by black students. They have awarded nearly a quarter of the bachelor’s degrees earned by black students in science, technology, engineering and math fields since the early 2000s, according to one study.

But the schools are also historically underfunded, so an injection of cash would especially matter for them, advocates say.

“They have never gotten the requisite funding to allow them to be competitive with their non-HBCU peer institutions,” said David Sheppard, senior vice president, general counsel and chief of staff at the Thurgood Marshall College Fund, which represents the nation’s public HBCUs, including Texas Southern. “So to have the funding that has been proposed in a couple of these proposals is of critical importance.”

Sheppard said some predominantly white research universities, such as Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, rake in more than $1 billion a year in federal funding. Most HBCUs are getting in the tens of millions, he said, in large part because there still isn’t a single HBCU that qualifies as a top-tier research institution.

The candidates are playing up those disparities as they seek to win over black voters.

“HBCUs have always had to do more with less — and as a result, many are in danger of closing or have already shuttered their doors,” Warren wrote in a post online when she laid out her plan. “We can’t fix this by nibbling around the edges.”

“Historically Black Colleges and Universities account for 80% of Black judges, 50% of Black lawyers, and 25% of Black STEM degrees — they deserve more dedicated financial support,” Buttigieg tweeted.

They’ll also tout their connections to the schools. Harris, especially, has a strong case to make, as a graduate of Howard University, where she was a member of the Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, the oldest Greek-letter organization established by African-American college-educated women. She has sought to tap that network early.

But others, including Sen. Cory Booker, whose parents are HBCU graduates, have talked up the schools in the past.

“HBCUs are not just for African-Americans,” Booker tweeted in March. “HBCUs make America stronger.”

Sen. Bernie Sanders, who toured HBCUs during his 2016 run, has also taken to Twitter to voice support for the schools: “It’s time to fully fund HBCUs, reduce the outrageous burden of student debt weighing down the lives of millions of Americans and ensure everyone can get a higher education regardless of their family’s income.”

Beto O’Rourke, too, campaigned on HBCU campuses during his 2018 Senate run. He gave the commencement address at Paul Quinn College, the oldest HBCU in Texas, earlier this year.

Regardless of whether the money the candidates are promising ever really comes, the talk about HBCUs — and the debate at Texas Southern— are a big boost.

“The fact that TSU has a debate on campus is a significant event — that’s the bottom line,” Sheppard said. “It has the opportunity to give some exposure not to only TSU, but some other HBCUs.

“Part of the benefit of having debate on campus is, for some people … allowing them to know that HBCUs exist and to educate themselves more about what our institutions are doing,” he said.

As Texas Southern President Austin Lane put it: “We could not afford the cost that would be associated with this type of exposure, this type of big stage exposure.”

As for the candidate’s proposals?

“I’m trying to stay calm and cool and not get too wrapped up into the pitches being made,” he said. “I don’t really look at a lot of that until those proposals become law or funding that translates from the Education Department to us.”

By Benjamin Wermund of the Houston Chronicle.