When Donald Trump Brags About His Record on HBCUs, Here's What He Means

Late last year, former Department of Education Assistant Secretary Adam Kissel let loose on the Trump Administration for his view of its wasteful spending on ‘failing’ historically Black colleges and universities. He intended to point out the fallacy in the campaign promises of then-presidential hopefuls like Cory Booker and Bernie Sanders, who promised billions to Black colleges if elected to replace Donald Trump.

But what Kissel’s hit job inadvertently did was expose the true measure of mystery behind the Trump White House and its engagement with HBCUs. Line by line, program by program, Kissel called out the administration for how some Black colleges were propped up or outright saved by a free-spending, Conservative-controlled Congress and its reality TV ringmaster.

A few highlights:

Here’s what we’re already spending on HBCUs under Title III. In 2019 Congress gave these 101 institutions $282 million, plus $79 million in “mandatory” money (for which the institutions need to do little but fill out a form), plus $73 million for Historically Black Graduate Institutions (including law and medical schools), plus $9 million for master’s-degree programs. Doubling this amount gives them $443 million more, or an extra $4.43 billion over ten years. On top of all that, Howard University gets its own annual appropriation of $237 million, nearly a billion dollars every four years, having been uniquely created and chartered by Congress in 1867.

This is an early checkpoint to check in on what looks like funding over the last decade on funding for the federal strengthening HBCUs program.

Courtesy: USASpending.gov

While funding dramatically dropped in 2010, the apex of federal Title III funding for Black colleges was just over $800 million in 2011, a mark that the current administration has exceeded three times in four years.

Now for more from Kissel:

In 2019, Congress also offered $40 million in loan subsidies that are uniquely available to HBCUs. This number represents another entirely undeserved windfall. This loan program, the HBCU Capital Financing Program, had been required by Congress in 2018 to forgive or defer hundreds of millions in loans to HBCUs, including those that had the full ability to pay. Here’s how it went: In 2013, four HBCUs were still paying off debt in this program due to loans given in the aftermath of the 2005 hurricanes Katrina and Rita, so they got five-year deferments, with the resumed payments based on ability to pay. No matter; in 2018 Congress offered what came to $322 million to fully forgive the loans.

Those four HBCUs were Dillard University, Southern University of New Orleans, Tougaloo College, and Xavier University of Louisiana.

Then, predictably, a bunch of HBCUs and their lobbyists came calling for more. Why not forgive or at least defer our loans, too? Congress came through. In July 2018, eight HBCUs got their deferments by demonstrating how poor their finances were — indeed, demonstrating bad financial status was part of the competition initiated by Congress. And whereas Congress had offered only enough funding for a couple of institutions to get deferments, the HBCUs successfully lobbied to have the funding interpreted as annual deferments, so that all eight could get their deferments.

Then they came for more. They got not just deferments, but also refunds of money they had already paid.

Then other HBCUs came for more. Congress came through again. The additional five applicants, even those with such poor applications that they did not make the “top” eight, also got their deferments.

In total, 13 HBCUs received loan deferments and refunds on prior-year loan payments. The schools are:

Benedict College, Bennett College, Florida Memorial University, Huston-Tillotson University, Philander Smith College, Saint Augustine’s University, Shaw University, Stillman College, Virginia Union University, Voorhees College, Wilberforce University, Wiley College, and Arkansas Baptist College.

At least four institutions on the list would have been on the path to closure without the support, which was so historical that it led United Negro College Fund President Michael Lomax to say (without name-checking Trump, of course):

“2018 has been a good year for HBCUs,” said UNCF president and CEO Dr. Michael L. Lomax. “Not only did our institutions receive a significant increase in funding for vital programs such as the Strengthening HBCU program or ‘Title III’, but our institutions also received much-needed relief in the HBCU Capital Financing program. We went to our congressional leaders on both sides of the aisle with a problem – and they answered. It is our hope to continue this momentum moving into the 116th Congress. I have to give credit to Rep. Alma Adams and Rep. Ted Budd, both of North Carolina. They began this process and were able to significantly grow the bipartisan congressional support. Then, the Secretary of Education and her staff implemented this new authority in the best possible way.” 

This is in addition to the HBCU share of the $14 billion CARES act funding, support for COVID-19 testing, and personal protective equipment purchases. It is also increasing state-level engagement with HBCUs in places like Florida and South Carolina to provide more public funding in public and private HBCUs.

Black men are emerging for the 2020 election what white women were to the 2016 election — a seemingly disenfranchised group whose members are willing to subjugate their own political interests to make a political statement. Instead of recognizing this fact and pandering to it much in the way Trump is doing, it would appear that the Joe Biden - Kamala Harris campaign is satisfied to let the issue lie dormant with the engagement of disgruntled, high-earning rappers instead of on terms that can resonate with brothers from barbershops to boardrooms — fair treatment of Black colleges.

The only time HBCUs were ever raised in the presidential debates was when Trump brought them up. The only time we hear or see HBCUs from the Biden-Harris camp is when Sen. Harris is marching alongside an HBCU marching band or talking of a mystical $70 billion support package that rarely offers even half of the details available on Biden’s campaign website.

When Trump says, “we saved HBCUs,” in his inarticulate, clumsy, and racially-charged way, the liar-in-chief isn’t all the way lying.

If the 2020 election proves to be the finale or the mid-point of Donald Trump’s presidential career, one thing it will always be is a landmark on the political currency historically black institutions can generate. While his approval ratings from and engagement with the HBCU sector may be historically negative, his performance on key Black college support metrics is more than notable; it is the blueprint for every presidential administration and every session of Congress to follow in support of institutions which established, and can sustain Black America.

A sector, if we can keep it.