New Bill Would Modernize Historically Black Colleges

Separate from proposals by President Joe Biden, federal lawmakers will introduce a bill this month to direct funds to historically Black colleges and universities for high-speed Internet and other upgrades and repairs.

Florida A&M University
A view of Florida A&M University, a public and historically black university, in Tallahassee, Florida, on Monday, Dec. 14, 2020. (Daniel A. Varela/Miami Herald/TNS)
Daniel A. Varela/TNS
(TNS) — Ruptured pipes. Broken sidewalks. Campus blackouts. Rep. Alma Adams, a former professor at a historically Black college, has seen it all.

Adams recalls spending much of her four-decade career at Bennett College in Greensboro, North Carolina, teaching in a building that did not have air conditioning. For too many teachers and students at historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs), she says, that is still the case.

“That’s not unique to any one of our institutions,” Adams, a North Carolina Democrat who is founder of the HBCU Caucus in Congress, said. “It’s something that we see on many of the campuses.”

Adams is one of several lawmakers introducing a bill this month that would direct money to the more than 100 public and private universities created for Black students that are recognized as HBCUs to help them renovate, modernize and construct new campus facilities, including academic and residential buildings.

The legislation would also help those colleges preserve buildings of historical significance, address safety hazards and provide high-speed internet on campus. It would also improve virtual teaching and learning, and provide health and community services such as coronavirus vaccinations.

A summary of the legislation reviewed by McClatchy said money could be put toward purchasing equipment and investing in technology that would help improve research capabilities.

“Clearly, we’re due for an upgrade,” Adams said in an interview. “We need to get that investment in there to make sure that we can continue to produce our nation’s leaders.”

Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., Rep. French Hill, R-Ark., and Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del., all co-chairs of the HBCU Caucus, are co-sponsors of the bill that they say is aimed at helping schools repair and upgrade aging infrastructure so that they are better positioned to compete with other top universities for students and private investment.

The bill is separate from proposals put forward by President Joe Biden to increase funding to HBCUs. The sponsors of the new legislation have not provided a cost estimate.

Adams estimated that HBCUs — most of which are more than a century old — have a combined $25 billion in maintenance backlogs alone. She said the cost of the legislation would be subject to “compromise” and would be shaped by conversations with other lawmakers involved in the congressional appropriations process.

Biden, as part of his infrastructure package, asked Congress to allocate $10 billion to minority-serving institutions for research and development and allot $15 billion for the creation of 200 research incubators that could sponsor graduate fellowships and pre-college programs for underserved communities.

Biden’s proposal also sought $20 billion for physical and technological upgrades for laboratories at the colleges and the creation of a national climate lab that would be affiliated with an HBCU.

His plan is different from the one he put forward as a presidential candidate. Biden’s campaign plan mentioned fixing “deteriorating facilities,” preserving historic buildings and upgrading “digital infrastructure” at those institutions, in addition to the construction of new high-tech laboratories and research buildings.

A White House spokesperson said HBCUs have been “historically under-utilized and under-resourced” in research and development and the president wants to “ensure that we are tapping onto the talent of those institutions.” The White House supports proposals to fund the preservation of buildings and looks forward to working with the HBCU Caucus leaders on their proposal to send additional money to the schools for repairs, the spokesperson said.

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Jaffus Hardrick said when he became president of Florida Memorial University, a private HBCU in Miami Gardens, in 2018, it was constantly enduring brownouts. The power would go out, he said, because the electrical wiring had not been replaced in more than 50 years. The outages affected Wi-Fi and cybersecurity on campus.

Hardrick said fixing the problem had a $1 million price tag, although a partnership with Florida Power & Light allowed the university to complete the project for half that cost. “We’re literally having to move funding around in so many areas to just take care of simple things like this,” Hardrick said.

Large, public HBCUs like North Carolina A&T in Greensboro also face substantial deferred maintenance costs. The university says its last assessment, in July 2020, found a backlog of $133 million in needed repairs.

Public and private HBCUs that responded to a 2018 Government Accountability Office (GAO) survey said nearly half their buildings on campus, on average, needed to be replaced or repaired. After conducting site surveys at some of the campuses, GAO in a report said the schools had “significant” needs.

“Among the many priorities, deferred maintenance is a big item,” N.C. A&T Chancellor Harold Martin said. “And we’re excited about the fact that it’s getting debated with significant support by the bipartisan HBCU committee.”

He said he stressed the importance of investing in HBCUs like N.C. A&T, so they can compete with better known research universities, in a conversation with Vice President Kamala Harris last month during her trip to Greensboro.

HBCUs produce nearly 20 percent of all African American college graduates, and 25 percent of African Americans with a degree in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, according to the United Negro College Fund, an organization that seeks to increase the number of African Americans with a college degree.

“Funding for HBCUs is critical to providing educational resources for low-income students, first generation college students, and those most at risk of not entering college,” Coons said in a statement about the legislation.

Adams said she hopes the bipartisan bill will be attached to legislation that includes Biden’s infrastructure package.

Scott, in a statement, expressed hope that other Republicans would support the legislation. “HBCUs, especially in southern states, have richly benefited their communities and need strong infrastructure to continue doing so. I trust more of my colleagues will sign on to our already bipartisan and bicameral bill.”

Hill, also a Republican, said in a statement, “This measure encourages private philanthropy accompanying public state and federal investments on HBCU campuses to boost their long term competitiveness.”

An economic impact study published by the United Negro College Fund in 2017 said HBCUs generate $14.8 billion and 134,090 jobs for their local and regional economies. The report also said HBCU graduates earn 56 percent more than they would without college credentials. The report helped to increase bipartisan support for the schools, said Lodriguez Murray, vice president of public policy and government affairs at UNCF.

Congress last year wiped out $1.6 billion of debt for HBCUs that took out federal loans to pay for renovations and construction at their campuses.

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