Despite comprising only 3 percent of the nation’s four-year colleges, historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) have produced 80 percent of the country’s African American judges, 50 percent of its African American doctors, and 27 percent of African Americans with STEM degrees, according to the Department of Education. Until last week, the federal government excluded more than 40 HBCUs that are faith-based from a program that loans out money for campus improvements.
“This meant 40 of your faith-based institutions which had made such tremendous contributions to America were unnecessarily punished for their religious beliefs,” President Donald Trump said in a speech last week. A recent Justice Department legal opinion called the withholding of the funds from those schools discriminatory and unconstitutional, and the White House announced last week it was doing away with the rule.
The Justice Department cited the Supreme Court’s rulings in Trinity Lutheran v. Comer and Locke v. Davey—cases in which the justices found that excluding organizations or students from federal funding on religious grounds was unconstitutional. Locke v. Davey dealt with a state scholarship fund that would not pay for students to study theology, and Trinity Lutheran was about a state-funded playground resurfacing program that would not accept a religious preschool. The Justice Department said the cases “establish that the government may not deny generally available funding to a sectarian institution because of its religious character.” The legal opinion also stated that the federal government still retains “discretion to choose what activities to fund.”
In his speech announcing the change, coincided with National Historically Black Colleges and Universities Week, Trump called the schools “pillars of excellence,” and reiterated his commitment to make them “bigger and better and stronger than any previous administration, by far.”
HBCUs came into existence after the Civil War and prior to the Civil Rights Act of 1964 in response to segregation in higher education that excluded or severely limited African American students. President Ronald Reagan created the White House Initiative on Historically Black Colleges and Universities in 1981.
Since taking office, Trump has hosted HBCU presidents at the White House, signed a farm bill that included more than $100 million for scholarships and research at the schools, and increased investment in HBCU programs by more than 14 percent. He also relocated the federal initiative from the Education Department to the White House, something black leaders repeatedly called for during President Barack Obama’s administration.
HBCU presidents have typically courted presidential administrations regardless of their political leanings. They depend on the federal government for half of their annual revenue on average to operate. “I think it’s important to stay focused on the money and not on the message,” Austin Lane, president of Texas Southern University, told Politico. Smith said he attended the HBCU conference only to find out “if there’s money to access, where is it and how do we get it.”
But Trump’s speech to HBCU leaders also seemed directed at the wider African American community. He touted the nation’s low African American poverty and unemployment rates and told the crowd “no one has done more for you than me.” Some critics called it a campaign pitch to bolster his approval rate among African Americans, only at 10 percent according to recent polls.
HBCUs have also found their way into the 2020 Democratic presidential debates. Candidates including Sen. Kamala Harris, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg, and former Vice President Joe Biden have all called for massive federal investments into the schools.