Acton Institute Powerblog

HBCU Funding: A Tale of Executive Orders

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Untitled-9One of the things I never learned in my U.S. government courses in high school was just how quickly government agencies and programs grow without undergoing Congressional vetting. For example, I recently discovered that there exists a federally-funded White House Initiative on Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU). When did that happen? How did that happen? In fact, a few days ago, the White House announced changes in the leadership of this initiative.

President Obama names two dynamic new leaders to head the White House Initiative on Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs). Dr. George Cooper will begin this week as the Initiative’s Executive Director, and Dr. Ivory Toldson will serve as Deputy Director. The task at hand for Dr. Cooper and Dr. Toldson is to lead a team, stretched across 32 federal agencies, corporate entities, and philanthropic organizations, to work together in strengthening the capacity of over 100 HBCUs, as they strive to shape this country’s next generation of leaders.

Since a large share of HBCUs are private schools, I am curious about why these schools deserve special attention from the President of the United States in ways that other historic coalitions of colleges do not. After looking at the Department of Education’s website for information I discovered that this is a tale of presidential executive orders.

It seems that this initiative sprung from President Jimmy Carter signing an executive order in 1980 that established a federal program “to overcome the effects of discriminatory treatment and to strengthen and expand the capacity of historically black colleges and universities to provide quality education.” The next year, President Ronald Reagan established the White House Initiative on Historically Black Colleges and Universities, setting “into motion a government wide effort to strengthen our nation’s HBCUs.” Eight years later in 1989, President George Bush signed an executive order establishing a Presidential Advisory Board on Historically Black Colleges and Universities “to advise the president and the secretary of education on methods, programs, and strategies to strengthen these valued institutions.” The Clinton presidency also played a major role in expanding the oversight and reach of the initiative with another executive order. Finally, on Feb. 12, 2002, President George W. Bush signed an executive order transferring the White House Initiative on Historically Black Colleges and Universities to the Office of the U.S. Secretary of Education. And there you have it.

In terms of funding, HBCUs receive about 4 percent of the nearly $120 billion the federal government gives to higher education through aid and research dollars each year. HBCUs also receive about $2.5 billion in Pell Grants. Because these schools tend to be small, HBCU students receive more taxpayer-funded aid per capita than students at non-HBCU colleges. Are these reparations? What is alarming about the funding disparity, however, is that even with increased funding since the Carter years, HBCUs remain among the lowest-performing schools in the country with an average graduation rate of 42 percent. Should we not be closing some of them if they are not graduating students?

With these numbers you have to wonder if there is more to the story. Why would the White House and the Department of Education commit to funding and maintaining an HBCU like Texas Southern University that only graduates 11 percent of its students? Given the low performance of these schools, you can not help but wonder if political pressure, election cycles, political favors, and the like have something to do with the continuation of the program. Whatever is going on behind the scenes, it is safe to say that presidential executive orders often plant seeds that expand government down the road. A small federal program formed in 1980 has now grown into a targeted Department of Education initiative supported by 32 additional federal agencies by 2013.

Anthony Bradley Anthony Bradley, Ph.D. is Associate Professor of Theology and Ethics in the Public Service Program at The King's College in New York City and serves as a Research Fellow at the Acton Institute. Dr. Bradley lectures at colleges, universities, business organizations, conferences, and churches throughout the U.S. and abroad. His books include: Liberating Black Theology: The Bible and the Black Experience in America (2010),  Black and Tired: Essays on Race, Politics, Culture, and International Development (2011),  The Political Economy of Liberation: Thomas Sowell and James Cone of the Black Experience (2012), Keep Your Head Up: America's New Black Christian Leaders, Social Consciousness, and the Cosby Conversation (2012), Aliens in the Promised Land:  Why Minority Leadership Is Overlooked in White Christian Churches and Institutions (forthcoming, 2013). Dr. Bradley's writings on religious and cultural issues have been published in a variety of journals, including: the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the Detroit News, and World Magazine. Dr. Bradley is called upon by members of the broadcast media for comment on current issues and has appeared C-SPAN, NPR, CNN/Headline News, and Fox News, among others. He studies and writes on issues of race in America, hip hop, youth culture, issues among African Americans, the American family, welfare, education, and modern slavery. From 2005-2009, Dr. Bradley was Assistant Professor of Systematic Theology and Ethics at Covenant Theological Seminary in St. Louis, MO where he also directed the Francis A. Schaeffer Institute.   Dr. Bradley holds Bachelor of Science in biological sciences from Clemson University, a Master of Divinity from Covenant Theological Seminary, and a Doctor of Philosophy degree from Westminster Theological Seminary.  Dr. Bradley also holds an M.A. in Ethics and Society at Fordham University.


  • Dylan Pahman

    I can’t dispute that those graduation rates do not look good, but is it safe to equate graduation rates with school performance? Aren’t many bad schools shuffling students through and dumbing down curriculum, leading along poor students for four years of debt rather than just one or two? Might low graduation rates simply reflect a realism regarding their students and an unwillingness to compromise academic standards? That said, there may be all sorts of other reasons why these schools could be termed “low performing.” I am just skeptical that graduation rates are the right measure.

    • tamsin

      I think grad rates are a good first approximation.

      On the one hand, a school may be maintaining high standards that not all qualified students can meet;

      on the other hand, a school may be enrolling far more unqualified students than it should, just to keep the money coming in. Better to skim off one or two years from a kid before he gives up and quits, than to not get any money by never admitting him. Sadly.

      The incentives for schools can become… admit, admit, admit. And there is a lot of competition among small liberal arts schools right now for warm bodies.

      That said, my own kid is looking at engineering schools, and given ABET certification, I then look at grad rates to see: will my kid be in among other kids working hard to graduate in 4 years?

      • Curt Day

        Enrolling unqualified students is why we cannot separate college education from the public schools. My teaching experience tells me that many unqualified students don’t know that they are unqualified.

    • Curt Day

      There are almost too many variables to measure in education. What often seems to be left out of the formula is the economic prospects of the family. It isn’t just whether there is poverty though that is an important variable, it is whether there is economic hopelessness. We might also study to see how much public money is put into each student in the poorer schools vs the suburban schools vs wealthy private schools. There are many other variables though.

  • RogerMcKinney

    The new guidelines for student loans will hurt these schools if applied equitably. The new rules are supposed to apportion student loan funds and Pell grants by the school’s job placement record and graduation rates.

    The growth of such programs shows what is wrong with the conservative idea that the state should do all the “good” that anyone sees might be done. There is no limit to the “good” things the state can do. But that causes exponential growth in government that will eventually bankrupt it and the people.

  • Ed

    HBCUs are job programs for the black middle class unable to compete or command the salaries they would elsewhere. That’s the reality. If you touch the funding you’re denounced as a racist.

    One other point though even though some HBCUs are private, several such as Howard are federally chartered and are thus entitled to federal funding by law.

    • Kirsten

      HBCUs are not “job programs for the black middle class unable to compete or command the salaries they would elsewhere.” In fact, they are typically very diverse places comprised of faculty and staff who have many other employment options but choose the HBCU (and yes, the lower salary) because they believe in the continuing need for and mission of the HBCU.

  • LJ

    The author of this article fails to see the importance of HBCUs. Graduation rates are low in may cases because students can’t afford to return to school. In spite of their issues. HBCUs remain important to America. I have to wonder why he doesn’t question the graduation rates at for-profit schools.

    Look at the facts!

  • LJ

    Mr. Bradley, Your alma mater Clemson University is a private university that receives federal funding. The four year graduation rate is 54%. Would you suggest the Clemson is no longer relevant?