Not only is February Black History Month, but also an important time to reflect on the undeniable contributions that black Americans have made in virtually every aspect of our nation. When you look at the scores of great men and women we honor this month, there is often a common denominator: attendance at one of our nation’s Historically Black Colleges and Universities. People like Rep. Joseph Rainey, Earl Graves, Oprah Winfrey, Terrence J, Marian Wright Edelman, Kàra McCullough, Thurgood Marshall, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Lionel Ritchie are all part of the rich HBCU legacy.
Today, nearly 300,000 students call an HBCU home, and it is in their name, for their futures, and for their dreams that we have to come together to find ways to ensure HBCUs continue to survive and thrive.
HBCUs play a significant role in ensuring that access to quality education is far-reaching. They are at the forefront of giving students who have been overlooked for far too long a chance at their version of the American Dream. A recent report from the Education Trust showed that, of the 105 HBCUs across the country, half of them “have a freshman class where three-quarters of the students are from low-income backgrounds.”
And while there are so many great things about HBCUs, there remain many challenges facing our nation’s more than 100 schools. Their sustainability is at the heart of the issue. The only way to effect real change is to have a coalition, formed by central partnerships that share the same mission and passion.
Nearly four years ago, this recognition led to the creation of a Bipartisan Congressional HBCU Caucus. Thurgood Marshall College Fund (TMCF) was among the very first to support it. Then, when Republicans came to control both the House and the Senate, the idea for a formal HBCU Fly-In was developed, and partnerships began to form. The offices of Rep. Mark Walker (R-N.C.) and Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.), joined by the leaders and innovators at the helm of both the Thurgood Marshall College Fund and the United Negro College Fund, played vital roles in bringing this groundbreaking event to fruition, and our efforts were evident. The majority of the nation’s HBCU presidents and chancellors came to D.C. and have returned every year for the Fly-In.
Partnerships between forward-thinking leaders and organizations are pivotal to developing and implementing the innovative solutions that will support and sustain HBCUs today and in the future. In fact, through intentional alliances, we have made amazing strides in engaging leaders and making direct, positive impacts on the HBCU community, as well as the greater African-American higher education community.
This year, the Third Annual HBCU Fly-In is among one of the remarkable achievements we’ve done when we put aside partisan politics for the betterment of our community. The Fly-In has served as a significant source of brainstorming, conversations, and deep policy discussions that have advanced the ongoing national dialogue about HBCUs.
Leaders from the private sector, HBCU advocates, and government agencies came together to listen, to learn, and to share their insights and perspectives regarding the evolving demands of the American workforce, as well as opportunities for mentoring and career development programs. Efforts like the annual Fly-In exemplify the unique role that we have filled to enact tangible change that will sustain HBCUs while supporting African-American students during and after their higher education journeys.
Some of the direct benefits that have been achieved through our coalition have included:
- Restoring year-round Pell Grants to empower hundreds of thousands of students to gain access to and pursue higher education more quickly and with less debt
- Fully forgiving hurricane relief loans of nearly $400 million for four HBCUs that were impacted by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005
- Securing major funding for HBCUs via the recent Farm Bill, which increased support and research for 1890-land grant HBCUs, with more than $400 million in total funding, including financial support for competitive scholarships, as well as new Centers of Excellence.
Building on this legacy of progress and success, an important piece of legislation was introduced: the “HBCU Propelling Agency Relationships Toward a New Era of Results for Students (PARTNERS) Act.” The HBCU PARTNERS Act is designed to strengthen the capacity and competitiveness of HBCUs through a robust public sector, and community partnerships, and engagement. Given its strong bipartisan support and its alignment with the administration’s priorities, there is no reason that this bill should not pass in both chambers and head to the president’s desk.
Simply put, this legislation would codify and expand upon the president’s February 2017 executive order on HBCUs, directing federal agencies to create annual plans that outline their goals, achievements, and room for growth with regards to HBCUs. Through the creation of these plans, we feel confident that agencies will leverage existing resources and programs, but also generate ideas for future initiatives, to create and strengthen pipelines to opportunity for HBCU students.
Ultimately, coming together to address the issues and challenges HBCUs face is the key to unlocking the opportunities and solutions necessary to promote the sustainability and success of HBCUs so these institutions—and the students, careers, and communities that depend on them—will thrive.
Tim Scott, a Republican, represents South Carolina in the U.S. Senate. He is the first African American to be elected to the House and the Senate in the history of the nation. Follow him on Twitter at @SenatorTimScott. Harry L. Williams is the president & CEO of Thurgood Marshall College Fund (TMCF), the largest organization exclusively representing the Black College Community. Prior to joining TMCF, he spent eight years as president of Delaware State University. Follow him on Twitter at @DrHLWilliams.
BY SEN. TIM SCOTT (R-S.C.) AND HARRY L. WILLIAMS, OPINION CONTRIBUTOR — 02/13/19 08:30 AM EST THE VIEWS EXPRESSED BY CONTRIBUTORS ARE THEIR OWN AND NOT THE VIEW OF THE HILL.