WASHINGTON — The leaders of the nation's historically black colleges and universities breathed a sigh of relief this week when they learned that President Barack Obama's fiscal 2011 budget includes a $30 million funding increase for their financially struggling schools.
Last year, many black educators were shocked by what they considered to be substantial cuts to black colleges and other educational institutions dedicated to select minorities, such as Native Americans, in Obama's first budget proposal.
"The United Negro College Fund and the entire community of minority-serving institutions were disappointed at last year's budget proposal, which recommended a decrease from previous funding levels," fund President Michael Lomax said in a written statement analyzing Obama's latest budget. "The increase — $30 million higher than last year's levels — proposed in the budget that has just been released shows that the administration was listening."
For the fiscal year that will begin on Oct. 1, Obama proposes $279.9 million for historically black colleges and universities — $30 million more than he proposed for fiscal 2010 and $13 million more than Congress appropriated, according to the United Negro College Fund. Including other minority-oriented educational institutions, Obama's total budget request is for $520 million, up from $496.3 million this year.
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The proposed funds are discretionary, meaning that colleges that receive the money would have leeway to spend it on items ranging from academic programs to construction and maintenance of instructional facilities to student services.
Administration officials said the funding request reflects the premium it places on minority education institutions, which they say will play an important role in helping to meet Obama's goal of the U.S. having the world's highest college graduation rate by 2020. The U.S. ranks 15th among 29 developed countries in college completion, according to the most recent National Report Card on Higher Education.
"I said from day one we desperately need historically black colleges and universities not just to survive, but to thrive," Education Secretary Arne Duncan said last week in a television interview with syndicated columnist and talk show host Roland Martin. "So, we want to support the institutions. We're going to make sure many more students can go through."
HBCUs — 105 federally recognized schools that were accredited and established before 1964 for the purpose of educating black Americans — are just 3 percent of the nation's higher education institutions, but they produce almost 20 percent of blacks who earn undergraduate degrees.
More than 50 percent of black public school teachers and 70 percent of black dentists are HBCU graduates, according to the United Negro College Fund.
The impact of the nation's weak economy is being felt at all of America's colleges and universities, but officials at black colleges say their schools have been hit harder than most.
Heavily dependent on tuition, with modest endowments and dealing with declining student enrollment, even some of the most prestigious black colleges are shedding faculty, reducing course offerings and weighing other measures to stay afloat.
Atlanta's all-female Spelman College, one of the wealthiest black campuses, eliminated 35 teaching positions last year. Its neighboring brother school, all-male Morehouse College, saw its endowment take a $40 million hit last year. North Carolina's Barber Scotia College made news last year when its enrollment dwindled to double-digits.
In Mississippi, Republican Gov. Haley Barbour is advocating merging three state-supported HBCUs — Jackson State, Mississippi Valley State and Alcorn State — to save money.
Several black higher-education officials quietly questioned the first black U.S. president's commitment to black colleges last year.
They pointed to the administration not renewing a two-year $170 million program that provided direct funding to HBCUs.
White House officials said they increased other direct aid support for the schools, but officials at black colleges argued that the expiration of the two-year program yielded a $73 million cut.
Administration officials disputed the claim, asserting in a May e-mail to BET.com that they'd raised discretionary funding for HBCU undergraduate and graduate programs by 5 percent — "more than twice the rate of inflation."
"There were a lot of high expectations among (black) educators because of who (Obama) was that they would do much better — he's a black president, they're black colleges — you expect to do better," said Ronald Walters, a political science professor emeritus at the University of Maryland. "There was a lot of grumbling."
"Obama is under pressure to be everyone's president, and that's a difficult line to walk," said Marybeth Gasman, an expert on black colleges at the University of Pennsylvania. "I do think he's cognizant of the contributions of black colleges and the challenges they have."
Seeking to avoid last year's controversy, black higher education officials have stepped up their lobbying on Capitol Hill and at the White House.
"We'd like to see President Obama engage HBCUs and (minority-serving institutions) in a more robust way," said Edith Bartley, the United Negro College Fund's director of government affairs, "to really taking a strong look and understand the role that our schools play."
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