The White House is promising Black colleges they won’t be left out of the president’s legislative agenda this year amid hand-wringing in Congress over what counts as infrastructure.
A group of senators and the White House agreed to compromise legislation that includes some, but not all, of the proposals in the jobs plan that President Joe Biden put forward.
That bipartisan proposal focuses on traditional infrastructure and does not mention historically Black colleges and universities or the resources the schools say they need in order to compete with better-known institutions for sustained, private investment and enrollment.
But the White House says that funding for those schools, known as HBCUs, will be part of the legislative package it is splitting into two bills in order to boost the odds of success in Congress.
The second bill will include parts of the Biden jobs plan that do not make it into the bipartisan infrastructure legislation and initiatives that are currently in the president’s families plan, Cedric Richmond, a senior adviser to Biden, said in an interview.
“It’s two tracks. Some things are moving from the jobs plan to the families plan. And when we talk about education, that’s absolutely one,” said Richmond, director of the Office of Public Engagement at the White House.
HBCUs — the more than 100 public and private schools that were founded before 1964 to predominantly educate Black Americans — are not specifically mentioned in the bipartisan proposal, despite being slated for funding in Biden’s original plan.
The lack of details has left unclear what infrastructure initiatives will be included in the bipartisan bill.
“I think that all of us are wondering what the specifics will be in the American Jobs Plan, the compromise version,” said Lodriguez Murray, senior vice president of public policy at United Negro College Fund.
Richmond said that caregiving initiatives and some green energy measures would be moving to the second piece of legislation. That bill is also where HBCUs could derive much of their federal funding. Biden is pushing for both bills to receive congressional approval this year.
Richmond met last week with UNCF, which is advocating for more federal funding for HBCUs, and Murray said afterward that his organization and the White House appear to be “in alignment” on the needs of the schools.
He said that Biden’s jobs and families plans and their corresponding legislation are “ideally two sides of the same coin” and he believes the administration is committed to what it proposed.
“I think that we have a strong chance of making our way into any number of packages,” Murray said.
Some Republicans have criticized Biden’s approach, saying many of his proposals are not strictly infrastructure and should not be included in an infrastructure funding bill. Several, however, want to direct money to HBCUs for repairs and are backing a proposal lawmakers hope to attach to compromise infrastructure legislation.
Minority-serving higher education institutions would receive more than $90 billion if all of the proposals Biden put forward in his jobs and families plans become law.
Biden in his jobs plan slated $10 billion for research and development, allocated $15 billion for the formation of 200 research incubators and set aside $20 billion for laboratory upgrades, including for a new national climate lab that would be affiliated with an HBCU.
In his families plan, Biden put $5 billion toward the expansion of grants that the schools could use to hire teachers and staff and $2 billion for graduate programs for skilled health care workers.
As part of that plan he is also seeking to direct $39 billion in tuition subsidies for two years of college to students who attend minority-serving institutions if their families make less than $125,000 annually. Biden also wants to increase the maximum Pell Grant award by roughly $1,400. His plan notes that the grants help many Black students pay for college.
Thurgood Marshall College Fund is pushing for HBCU funding in the bipartisan bill and Harry Williams, president and CEO of the group, said he is receiving assurances from lawmakers who have helped to deliver money for the schools in the past that there will be funding.
“We feel confident that we will get support,” Williams said. “We are confident that something will happen. We don’t know what.”
Williams said that he has “all indication” that the president and his aides “understand the significance and importance of HBCUs.”
The Biden administration has several high-profile HBCU graduates — Vice President Kamala Harris is a Howard University graduate and Richmond attended Morehouse College.
Richmond said the administration’s “goal is to be the most supportive administration of HBCUs than has ever existed” and to direct funding and support to HBCUs “as quick as possible.”
Biden “has given clear directive” to his aides to “find out what it is that can make the biggest difference” for those schools, he said.
“We’re challenging companies to partner with our bigger universities, to partner with an HBCU, so that we create that infrastructure at HBCUs, so that they can then start going after a lot of those big research dollars on their own,” Richmond said.
In the last COVID-relief bill, Congress awarded $3 billion in emergency assistance to HBCUs. Last year, it erased $1.6 billion in debt for HBCUs that took out federal loans to help pay for campus repairs and construction projects.
North Carolina Rep. Alma Adams, a Democrat who founded the HBCU Caucus in Congress, is seeking more money for modernization efforts at the schools.
She and a group of bipartisan lawmakers are cosponsors of a bill that would provide the schools with money to make upgrades to campus structures, including academic buildings and residential halls. The money could also be used to fund the construction of new facilities.
Adams is seeking to attach that HBCU funding legislation to either the bipartisan infrastructure proposal or the catch-all bill that Democrats are preparing to pass without the help of Republicans.
“Members of Congress are going to have a lot of input on what the bill looks like and what’s in it,” Richmond said. “She asked us to look into it, and that’s what we’re doing,” he said.
Richmond said the White House does not have a position on the bipartisan HBCU bill yet.
Adams said she spoke briefly with Harris about the bill last month at a White House event. “Just like I know she knows the unique challenges that these institutions face,” Adams, a former professor at Bennett College in Greensboro, N.C., said.
Harris’ office did not comment on the Adams-led legislation.
“I think it’s important for her to have a really good sense of what’s there,” Adams said of their conversation. “Because certainly she can make the sale for us because she is an HBCU graduate.”