Betsy DeVos, the education secretary, deserved the hammering she received for her widely reviled comments characterizing historically black colleges and universities (H.B.C.U.s) as early examples of “school choice.” But when it comes to the fate of H.B.C.U.s under the Trump administration, her apparent misunderstanding of their history is a distraction.The fate of these institutions in the coming years will hinge not on her words, but on her decisions about their funding.In February, after only a few days on the job, Ms. DeVos made headlines for visiting Howard University, a historically black college founded in 1867. Then, after a meeting with H.B.C.U. leaders Monday, she released a statement calling H.B.C.U.s the “real pioneers when it comes to school choice.” That description was widely criticized as a dishonest attempt to distance these institutions from the segregated past that necessitated them and to awkwardly re-position them as talking points for the school choice movement.
But her misguided remarks have diverted attention away from something more urgent: She now oversees the federal agency that is responsible for roughly three-fourths of the annual federal revenue to H.B.C.U.s. In ways that are much more consequential than any statement she could make, this power will allow her to determine how the schools fare under the Trump administration.
Tuesday, President Trump issued an executive order moving the White House Initiative on HBCUs (WHI-HBCUs) from the Department of Education to the Office of the White House. Some H.B.C.U. advocates supported this move because of their impression that it would strengthen the administrative authority of the initiative and elevate the stature of its executive director. However, moving the WHI-HBCUs from the Department of Education to the White House distances the initiative from the source of essential funding for H.B.C.U.s. That’s because the Education Department is responsible for the distribution of approximately $700 million annually in grants, contracts and appropriations to those schools. But when it comes to annual revenue to H.B.C.U.s, the Office of the President is directly responsible for zero dollars.This arrangement leaves Ms. DeVos with significant power. H.B.C.U. advocates and defenders like me should focus less on dissecting her talking points and misstatements and more on seeking answers to specific questions about her attitudes toward the funding of historically black colleges in the present day.First, what are Ms. DeVos’s plans related to Title III, the federal grant program within the Department of Education designed to build the capacity of H.B.C.U.s? President Obama’s budget for the 2017 fiscal year, which never passed, sought to maintain and strengthen these opportunities for H.B.C.U.s to build their capacity. It included a proposal for $85 million in mandatory funding to the schools, as well as $244.7 million in discretionary Title III funding. Will Ms. DeVos maintain or increase these levels of funding?Second, will Ms. DeVos create new grant programs and contracting opportunities for H.B.C.U.s? President Obama proposed $30 million for a program designed to increase the number of low-income students completing degree programs. Will she work with Congress to include similar programs in the federal budget?Third, what are Ms. DeVos’s views on college affordability? In his budget proposal to Congress last year, President Obama requested $60.8 billion in mandatory funding over the next decade to help states make two years of community college free, as well as to offer grants to provide free or reduced tuition to students at H.B.C.U.s and minority-serving institutions in their first two years. Will Ms. DeVos be supportive of similar measures?Finally, will Ms. DeVos protect and expand the Pell Grant program? Approximately 73 percent of all H.B.C.U. students receive Pell Grants to fund their education. Before leaving office, President Obama and his education secretary, John King, issued proposals to ensure that Pell Grants were fully funded. Mr. Obama’s 2017 fiscal-year budget included mandatory protections of Pell Grants. How will Ms. DeVos protect this essential source of funding?The answers to these questions will have enormous bearing on the futures of colleges and universities that serve students who have been historically disenfranchised. As budget priorities are set for these vulnerable institutions, Ms. DeVos has the potential to be an important influencer of the president and negotiator with Congress. It will be her actions in this area — not her campus visits, meetings or comments — that will determine whether she is ultimately a friend or foe to H.B.C.U.s.
Ivory A. Toldson, a professor at Howard University and the president of Quality Education for Minorities, is the former director of the White House Initiative on Historically Black Colleges and Universities. Toldson is also Editor-in-Chief of The Journal of Negro Education where I have published and participated in peer reviews.