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HBCU Day of Action brings alumni, supporters to Capitol Hill

Advocates set to meet with more than 30 members of Congress

A group of historically black college and university (HBCU) alumni, students and supporters are taking to Capitol Hill to voice their concerns about the future of HBCUs.

On Thursday morning, more than 250 supporters, along with representatives of the United Negro College Fund (UNCF) and Thurgood Marshall College Fund (TMCF), were meeting on what’s been deemed HBCU Day of Action, spearheaded by HBCU Collective: a group of HBCU alumni and supporters involved in policy and advocacy who encourage funding initiatives and support for HBCUs.

“For us, the HBCU Collective is a way that we can give an avenue of a voice to students and alumni of historically black colleges and universities,” said HBCU Collective co-organizer and Morgan State alum Krishana Davis. “So many of us have no idea we can go to members of Congress and advocate on behalf of our schools or anything else. When we’re on the Hill, we see tons of people talking about immigration reform and women’s health, but we don’t see a lot of black people, and we don’t see a lot of black people talking about black issues.”

Davis, along with co-organizers Robert Stephens, Dominique Warren, Shambulia Gadsden Sams, Ericka Hatfield and Janay Johnson, helped organize meetings with more than 30 members of Congress who have HBCUs in their districts. Supporters were welcome to advocate for HBCUs that they attended, as well as ones that are in their hometowns or near their location in their current states.

At noon, a news conference was held with U.S. Rep. Alma Adams, of North Carolina’s 12th Congressional District and founder of the Bipartisan HBCU Caucus, which works to promote and protect the interests of HBCUs; Michael Sorrell, president of Paul Quinn College in Dallas; David Wilson, president of Morgan State University in Baltimore; and students from Howard University. Multiple meetings will follow until the day wraps up around 5 p.m.

According to Davis, there are three policy areas the HBCU Collective and its supporters are pushing: increased financial support for students, increased funds for federal research grants and funding for facility upgrades.

In March, the UNCF released a statement detailing its concerns about a proposal by President Donald Trump’s administration to cancel more than $5 billion in Pell Grants. The 2018 fiscal year budget proposal, dubbed the “skinny budget,” is set to cut $3.9 billion in Pell Grant funds. Another $1.3 billion will be taken from the Pell program to pay for increased defense spending in the 2017 fiscal year.

“Everyone’s been talking about President Trump and this skinny budget, so we want to make sure, at base minimum, that we’re maintaining funding in all three of these areas,” Davis said. “[The skinny budget] is terrifying because we know what the wealth income gap looks like for black families and black students compared to their white counterparts. For a lot of black students, Pell Grants are how they pay for school. That makes this even more critical and important because we have to make sure that we can provide a vehicle to grow the next generation of black leaders in the global workforce.”

Five years ago, the percentage of full-time, full-year undergraduate students who received loans was highest for black students, according to research conducted by the National Center for Education Statistics. Seventy-two percent of black students received loans, compared with 56 percent of white students. Among full-time undergraduate students who received grants, black students received a lower average amount of grant aid than white, Hispanic and Asian students, as well as students of two or more races.

According to the UNCF, more than 7.6 million students receive Pell Grants from the program, which is the single largest source of federal scholarships for students who cannot afford to pay for college on their own. These grants support around 70 percent of students attending HBCUs throughout the country.

“When we take away federal investments in the students who need it most, we are in effect taking away needed investments in America’s economy and global competitiveness,” UNCF President Michael Lomax said in a statement. “A more robust federal investment in Pell Grants would enhance college access, improve college outcomes — both persistence and degree completion — and lower student debt, which is a crisis for students at HBCUs. Degree completion is directly tied to creating the college-educated workforce needed to fill high-skilled jobs of today’s global economy.”

Although Davis believes today’s turnout is a great start, the quest to preserve HBCUs doesn’t begin and end with one day. For those who were not able to make it to Capitol Hill, Davis said, there are other routes that advocates can take to do their part.

“We’re going to make sure this continues,” Davis said. “We have a social media tool kit with a list of all the Congress members that we’re meeting with suggestions for them. If people can’t make it, call local Congress members. Blow up their Twitter accounts. We want to make sure they know this is an amplified voice and message.

“President Trump is not the first president to not fully either increase or maintain the funding for historically black colleges and universities, but I think that what we felt in the past is that we’d elect officials and hope that they would make good on their promises that they gave. I think now what we’re seeing is us hoping that you make good on your promises is not enough. We’re going to come to your offices, we’re going to tweet you, we’re going to call you. We’re going to make sure you make good on those promises.”

Maya Jones is an associate editor at The Undefeated. She is a native New Orleanian who enjoys long walks down Frenchmen Street and romantic dates to Saints games.