Senator Kamala Harris, the first graduate of a historically Black college or university on a major party presidential ticket, is already giving schools like her alma mater a morale boost. Having an advocate in the White House could bring even more attention, enrollment and funding.
Historically Black schools, which tend to serve lower-income students, are in the spotlight as the U.S. grapples with racism and systemic inequality in the wake of the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. Advocates see Democratic nominee Joe Biden’s choice of Harris as significant, potentially helping such schools to survive and thrive.
“It’s an exciting time for HBCUs,” said Jameia Tennie, director of undergraduate admissions at North Carolina Agricultural & Technical State University. “It’s important that our students continue to see great examples of opportunity for HBCU graduates.”
Nia Page, a 22-year-old graduate of Spelman College and a national co-chair of HBCU Students for Biden, agreed about the impact of Harris’s rise: “Seeing her succeed means that we can succeed as well.”
Many Black schools need support to continue their missions. After a decades-long increase in enrollment, HBCUs saw their population drop 11% between 2010 and 2018, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, a sharper fall than their counterparts. Covid-19 dealt these schools another blow, potentially hurting enrollment and revenue as some campuses go remote for the upcoming school year.
No Black school is among the 100 richest universities. The combined endowment of all 101 HBCUs is $3.86 billion, roughly half the size of that of Washington University in St. Louis, a school with fewer than 8,000 students.
“All of these institutions are grossly underfunded,” said Representative G.K. Butterfield, Democrat of North Carolina. “What they need more than anything else is a substantial infusion of capital.”
Harris graduated in 1986 from Howard University in Washington, D.C., one of the largest and wealthiest HBCUs — with enrollment rising to about 10,000 this fall and with an endowment of $692 million. It was at Howard where she made her first political run – freshman class representative on a student council. Harris also joined the sorority Alpha Kappa Alpha and interned at the U.S. Senate.
“As a proud Howard alum, Senator Harris knows firsthand the richness and impact of an HBCU education,” said Jamal Brown, the Biden campaign’s national press secretary, in a statement Friday. “Vice President Biden is proud to work with her in advancing historic investments in these institutions.”
The senator has remained involved on campus, including as commencement speaker in 2017 and on the search committee that selected Howard’s current president, Wayne Frederick.
In the Senate, she introduced and passed legislation to help preserve and improve historic HBCU buildings and sought additional federal funding for these schools. Advocacy from a vice president could provide a new impetus for federal support of HBCUs, but Frederick emphasized in an interview this week that the burden can’t fall solely on one person or administration.
“Regardless of who’s in the White House,” he said, “we still have the job of convincing the entire House and the entire Senate of why it’s a good investment in America.”
Biden’s higher education plan includes a proposed $70 billion in spending for HBCUs and other minority-serving institutions. President Donald Trump’s administration has also sought to secure funding for Black schools. Between fiscal 2018 and 2020, the administration and Congress have approved roughly $200 million in funding for HBCUs, according to Lodriguez Murray, a senior vice president of government affairs at the United Negro College Fund.
Private donors have stepped up as well. Philanthropist Patty Quillin and Netflix CEO Reed Hastings, who has a net worth of $5.9 billion, recently donated $120 million to the UNCF, Spelman College and Morehouse College. Philanthropist MacKenzie Scott, whose net worth is $60.5 billion, pledged $40 million to Howard, a record individual gift, and five other HBCUs. LeMoyne-Owen College in Memphis, Tennessee, received a $40 million gift from the Community Foundation of Greater Memphis.
Such donations make a big difference to the recipients, and HBCUs could benefit further from attention related to the Black Lives Matter movement and Harris’s place on the Democratic ticket. However, said Murray, the most important goal is the sustained and adequate funding that comes from recognition: “It’s not one person or one incident that makes the future or prospects of HBCUs, but it’s a trend — part of a larger trend in higher education where HBCUs are just starting to get the respect they’ve long deserved.”
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