Trump seeks to outdo Obama in backing black colleges

President Donald Trump gives a thumbs up during a tour of the National Museum of African American History and Culture with Housing and Urban Development Secretary-designate Dr. Ben Carson and his wife Candy Carson, Tuesday, Feb. 21, 2017, in Washington.
President Donald Trump gives a thumbs up during a tour of the National Museum of African American History and Culture with Housing and Urban Development Secretary-designate Dr. Ben Carson and his wife Candy Carson, Tuesday, Feb. 21, 2017, in Washington. AP

President Donald Trump is expected to provide historically black colleges and universities a long-awaited boost as he looks to outdo his predecessors — including the nation’s first African-American president – on a surprising issue.

Trump will sign an executive order as early as Monday, when the schools’ presidents arrive in Washington for a visit. It’s expected to significantly strengthen the office that pushes the federal government to do business with the colleges by moving it to the White House and providing it specific goals, according to those who are helping to write the document.

The potential is huge. Federal agencies have thousands of contracts with colleges, universities and think tanks worth billions of dollars, primarily for research that includes studying everything from cancer to poverty.

“It would be truly, truly historic,” said Leonard Haynes, a longtime educator who ran the office and is helping to write the executive order. “It’s part of a long time dream...none of (the other presidents) had the courage to do it.”

Though African-Americans overwhelmingly support Democrats at the polls, many education experts credit Republican leaders for helping to improve HBCUs, the common shorthand for historically black schools.

Some black college administrators say they were disappointed in President Barack Obama for not making the schools a priority and, in some cases, harming their financial health and contributing to declining enrollment with the changes he made to loan programs.

Some campuses are struggling, suffering from budget cuts, low endowments, aging facilities and fiscal mismanagement.

The schools receive money from the federal government through grants, contracts, appropriations and student aid. They received $4.7 billion in federal financial assistance in 2013, according to the latest annual report available. The money accounted for 2.8 percent of federal funds awarded to all institutions of higher education.

While Trump’s rival, Hillary Clinton, had proposed $25 billion to help support low- and middle-income students at private HBCU campuses, Trump’s plans were unknown.

Trump’s interest this early in his presidency is surprising. The Republican won a mere 8 percent of the African-American vote after Trump upset many by suggesting they live largely in crime-infested cities. He tried to woo them with this line: “What the hell do you have to lose?”

Helping black colleges is “an easy win for President Trump,” said Julianne Malveaux, former president of Bennett College, a historically black liberal arts college for women in Greensboro, N.C. “It’s an easy way to say to black people ‘I’m not ignoring you.’ ”

It also is politically shrewd. Predominantly black colleges tend to be clustered in Republican-dominated states, including South Carolina, Georgia and Texas. North Carolina tops the list, with five public and five private four-year institutions.

But, she and others caution, Trump’s support on this issue will not erase other concerns about his personnel choices and his policies involving discrimination and voting rights.

“The president’s history in this matter of public policy leads one to be suspect of his motives because he doesn’t have a track record,” said Alvin Schexnider, a former chancellor of Winston-Salem State University and author of “Saving Black Colleges: Leading Change in a Complex Organization.”

The White House declined to comment on the executive order except to say Trump is committed to announcing an HBCU plan prior to the end of February, which is Black History Month.

“The president has a strong commitment to them and understands over the last eight years they've been woefully neglected,” White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer said. “And I think he wants to really show a commitment. ... And so you’ll see, I think, not just a push this month, but in his budget and going forward.”

The nation is home to more than 100 HBCUs, colleges or universities established before 1964 with the principal mission of educating African-Americans, who were barred from attending majority-white schools in the pre-civil-rights era. They serve about 300,000 students.

Black colleges represent 3 percent of the country’s two-year and four-year institutions but account for about 20 percent of degrees awarded to African-Americans and generate 25 percent of all the bachelor’s degrees in science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields earned by African-Americans annually, according to U.S. Department of Education and Thurgood Marshall College Fund statistics.

During the transition and into the start of his presidency, Trump’s advisers met with HBCU officials as they considered how to make good on Trump’s “New Deal For Black America,” which he unveiled at a speech in Charlotte, N.C.that alluded to black colleges.

Those meetings included Omarosa Manigault, a graduate of Central State University in Ohio and Washington’s Howard University, both HBCUs. She gained fame in the first season of “The Apprentice” and now serves as communications director for the Office of Public Liaison in the White House.

In the 1980s, Ronald Reagan created the White House Initiative on Historically Black Colleges and Universities. In 1989, George H. W. Bush established an advisory board to advise the president and the secretary of education on HBCUs.

The White House Initiative urges 32 federal agencies, including the Defense Department, Department of Agriculture and NASA, to contract with black colleges. It was initially housed at the White House but, despite its name, it is now located at the Education Department. Many experts have been advocating for it to be moved back for years. During Obama’s tenure, the initiative had a staff of six.

Trump is also likely to give federal agencies goals for how many contracts black schools should receive according to those who are helping to write the document.

Some are pushing him to to commit to a goal that HBCUs be awarded 5 percent of total federal grant, internship and cooperative agreement funding; and 10 percent of total federal contract funding awarded to colleges and universities, which would nearly double federal support to HBCUs. They also hope he will boost funding in his budget to be released mid-March.

Rep. Alma Adams, D-N.C., co-founder of the Bipartisan Congressional HBCU Caucus, said the efforts should be moved to the White House in part because she has little faith in Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.

“Let’s put it in the White House and put somebody over it who really understands the HBCU movement and what we need for these universities,” she said. “I think it will be better off there.”

But Ivory Toldson, who served as initiative director during Obama’s presidency, said putting the office back into the White House “might have potential to politicize the office in a way that shouldn’t.”

The executive order will coincide with the visit of about 90 presidents of historically black colleges and universities, who will be in Washington for a daylong conference. House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis, Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., and Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C. are scheduled to attend.

Anita Kumar: 202-383-6017, @anitakumar01

William Douglas: 202-383-6026, @williamgdouglas

Top 10 historically black college and universities by federal funding:

1. Howard University

2. North Carolina A & T

2. Florida A&M University

3. Jackson State University

4. Morehouse College

5. Tennessee State University

6. Morgan State University

7. Tuskegee University

8. Alabama A&M

9. Meharry Medical College

10. Hampton University

Source: USASpending.gov