Kamala Harris Wants to Invest in STEM at HBCUs. But Does Her Plan Ignore Pressing Needs?

Sen. Kamala D. Harris on Friday became the latest Democratic presidential candidate to highlight the importance of historically black colleges and universities, or HBCUs, when she proposed a policy to dedicate $60 billion to STEM programs and infrastructure for those institutions.

Harris is the only HBCU graduate on the roster of Democratic candidates, and her plan is the latest in a field of policies aimed at supporting the institutions. But her proposal, which would create a competitive fund to support infrastructure, scholarships, fellowships, and research grants, has raised questions about what HBCUs truly need and what would most benefit their students.

Howard University’s president, Wayne A.I. Frederick, told The Chronicle that Harris’s plan to focus on STEM shows her knowledge of the outsize role that HBCUs play in producing black graduates in those fields.

According to a 2013 study by the National Science Foundation, all but one of the top 10 undergraduate institutions of origin for black graduates with Ph.D.s in STEM are HBCUs. Howard, which is No. 1 (and is Harris’s alma mater), produces more black graduates who go on to attain a doctorate in a STEM field than Cornell, Harvard, MIT, and Stanford combined.

“And we’ve been doing that while underresourced,” Frederick said. “It’s a significant return on investment if you ensure that those institutions are doing that at a greater level.”

David Wilson, president of Morgan State University, said the increased focus, from Harris and others, was long overdue.

“These institutions have been overproducing the top black talent in this country for over a century and a half on a shoestring budget,” Wilson said. “It’s about time that a presidential candidate recognized the true value of these 100-plus institutions, and made appropriate investments in them.”

But, Wilson said, the country has a long way to go before the ranks of those who work in STEM fields diversify to more accurately reflect America’s demographics. “If we’re going to get there,” he said, “and if we want to be serious about turning out innovators and innovators of color, we can’t do that if there is not an appropriate investment in the institutions that are carrying the heaviest load.”

Harris’s plan is particularly well-suited to support the 47 public HBCUs that are part of the Thurgood Marshall College Fund, a nonprofit that represents those institutions, said its senior vice president, David Sheppard. He said that the plan’s most helpful provision is the $10 billion it would set aside for new STEM-related infrastructure, like laboratories.

“There’s never been an issue about there being the intellectual capacity to do the research … but there’s never been the infrastructure to support it,” he said. “If you’re going to set aside the funding to give a springboard for our schools to get there, then that gives us the potential of being competitive in a considerably shorter period of time.”

Some of the larger HBCUs, like Howard and Morgan State, are looking to propel themselves from Research 2 to Research 1 status in their Carnegie Classification so they can better compete with predominantly white institutions, or PWIs, that are research-intensive. Wilson said Harris’s plan could help research-oriented HBCUs do that by leveling the playing field.

“There’s a ripple effect of bringing some HBCUs initially to a level of competitiveness with their PWI counterparts,” he said. “Once you bring it to that level of competitiveness, then they will know how to successfully compete on an annual basis for these federal grants and contracts … because that’s the way these institutions sustain themselves.”

‘STEM Is a Buzzword’

Harris, who represents California, is just the latest Democrat to propose increasing federal spending on HBCUs. Sen. Elizabeth A. Warren, of Massachusetts, has pledged to increase federal funding for HBCUs by $50 billion; Julián Castro, of Texas, wants to invest $3 billion every year in financial aid for students at HBCUs; and Pete Buttigieg, mayor of South Bend, Ind., has promised to invest $25 billion as part of his “Douglass Plan” to promote racial equality.

But not every HBCU president is thrilled about Harris’s proposal. Fisk University, with a total undergraduate enrollment of 664 students and an endowment of less than $40 million as of 2017, isn’t a research university and isn’t trying to be one. Its president, Kevin D. Rome, said that Harris’s focus on STEM ignored the much greater needs of smaller, private HBCUs: replacing crumbling infrastructure and, more important, increasing financial aid for low-income students.

“For most students, their most pressing concern is, Can I remain in school?” Rome said. “If we can’t meet the basic needs of the students, if students can’t afford to pay their tuition, then they can’t benefit from any of the other programs.”

Fisk is by no means the only HBCU struggling to support its students. Graduates of HBCUs leave college shouldering more debt, on average, than their counterparts at predominantly white institutions — 32 percent more, according to 2017 data from the U.S. Department of Education. And with more than 70 percent of HBCU students relying on financial aid, Rome is skeptical that a multibillion-dollar investment in STEM would address their most urgent problems.

“STEM is a buzzword,” he said. “But I hope that the buzzwords don’t get in the way of the real needs, and the real needs are financial aid and infrastructure.”

Jarrett Carter, the founding editor of HBCU Digest, said the best plan would give individual HBCUs discretion over their increased funding so they could tailor it to their particular needs.

“It’s a natural fit to want to say, well, STEM is one of the things we do best, so let’s put more into STEM. But the risk that you run in doing that is, you’re going to make a bunch of black MITs,” he said. “You have to look at your various institutional members to say, OK, how does this funding that we’re making available fit into your institutional profile and mission?”

Carter also cautioned against efforts to put HBCUs on par with large, high-activity research institutions. Instead, he advocated a strategy that would raise graduates’ job prospects by training them to contribute to the state and local economies around their institutions.

“Why are we trying to put HBCUs in a mold, that the only way that you’re relevant, competitive, and worthwhile is if you are emulating Cal Berkeley or Johns Hopkins? How do we rethink excellence, how do we rethink industrial value?” he said. “If you really want to help the poor, if you really want to help build American cities and towns, stop thinking in terms of what has powered elite towns and cities.”

Liam Knox is an editorial intern at The Chronicle. Follow him on Twitter @liamhknox, or email him at liam.knox@chronicle.com.