The COVID-19 pandemic has brought the nation and world together, but it is also highlighting some inequalities. As our nation is unleashing trillions of dollars in aid to fight the outbreak — and to save the economy — we must not make those inequalities worse.
Contrast the tax code with the higher education portions of the CARES Act. Ninety percent of the $14 billion for higher education awarded by Congress will be distributed based on enrollment (heavily weighted towards low-income enrollment). But while the tax code is littered with income phase-outs to ensure that wealthy individuals do not get aid designed for struggling families, the higher education portion of the CARES Act contains no such provisions. As a result, Harvard University, one of our most prestigious and elite institutions, with the largest university endowment in the world ($41 billion), was slated to receive $9 million in the first batch of CARES Act funding (after criticism from President Trump, Harvard did the right thing and chose to leave the money for schools in greater need).
Private historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs), staples in the American fabric of society, are too often overlooked and underappreciated. They, just as Harvard, trace their humble beginnings to the clergy and religious organizations. Over the past two centuries, private HBCUs have struggled to survive while providing a quality education to one of our nation’s most vulnerable populations. They receive very little support from the states and are almost 100 percent tuition-driven. The CARES Act did include roughly $1 billion for minority-serving institutions, of which $450 million is estimated to be earmarked for HBCUs.
HBCU’s make it on a wing and a prayer, but the blessing has been that the wing belongs to eagles and the prayers have always reached Heaven.
As a graduate of Wiley College, which was founded after the Civil War in 1873, located in Marshall, Texas, I was devastated to see my alma mater caught up in this perfect storm. Thinking back on my student experience, I can remember the best of times and the scariest of times. We were reminded daily, in class, and weekly in the chapel, that we were a part of a legacy of freedom, justice, and equality. We also lived with the constant worry that because of the lack of funding, the school might not last another year.
I will never forget the commencement ceremony the day that I graduated from Wiley College; James Farmer, the founder of the Congress on Racial Equality (CORE) and the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and an alumnus of the school, spoke intensely about his journey through the Civil Rights movement. His physical presence and the eloquence of his delivery was paralyzing.
As we exited the auditorium, Mr. Farmer stopped me and reached out his hand to shake mine. He said to me, “It’s your turn now to go out and change the world.” On that day, in that moment, Wiley College transformed my life and placed me on a path to fight for freedom, justice, and equality.
Today, because of COVID-19 and the government-mandated shutdown, Wiley College and many other small private HBCUs are like ships being tossed across an angry sea.
As Newsweek reported, U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos expressed concern that stimulus funds were going to schools with large endowments, and she asked schools that didn’t need the money to send it along to schools that did. Secretary DeVos gets it, and it is to her credit that she has taken this strong stand on behalf of our HBCU’s.
Although Harvard and Stanford have done the right thing, I fear that other rich schools will not follow their lead. In that case, Secretary DeVos and state governors could look at these small private HBCUs from a needs-based perspective and utilize a portion of their discretionary funds to help guide them through the angry waters.
As mentioned, what drove Harvard’s about-face was President Trump’s comments at a press conference.
After being informed that Congress was awarding scarce resources to already-rich institutions like Harvard, the president promised to investigate it and to restore equity. A short time later, Harvard found religion. Thus, there is reason for optimism that our valued HBCU’s will continue to have the resources they need to support the invaluable national service they provide.