Seeking to capitalize on recent successes such as the renewal of the Higher Education Act, the United Negro College Fund (UNCF) on Wednesday unveiled a detailed new legislative agenda along with plans to raise awareness of historically Black colleges in Congress.
The new visibility will come in the form of an “HBCU Caucus” created by members of the U.S. House of Representatives to lend another voice to financial aid and grant funding issues.
The goal is “bipartisan dialogue in Congress” focused on key HBCU legislative priorities, said Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson, D-Texas, a cofounder of the caucus. Other cofounders are Rep. James Clyburn, D-S.C., House majority whip, and Rep. John Duncan, R-Tenn., a sponsor of past legislation on HBCUs.
Despite recent legislative gains, “It’s been a struggle for our institutions to stay alive and grow,” Johnson said at a Washington, D.C., breakfast announcing the initiatives.
One priority for the caucus is securing funds for the newly created federal program to help minority-serving institutions address the digital divide on their campuses. Congress authorized the program under the Higher Education Act reauthorization bill but has yet to appropriate money for the initiative.
“An authorization is great. But funding will make all the difference in the world,” said Dr. Michael Lomax, president and chief executive officer of UNCF.
With passage of HEA, including the new digital divide program, increased Pell Grant funding and other provisions, “This year has been a great year for minority students in the Congress,” Lomax said. However, the nation’s economic downturn harms needy students.
“We have made progress, but we are lagging behind where we need to be if low- and middle-income students are to have access to higher education.”
In unveiling its new “ABC Agenda” for higher education, UNCF identified pressing needs such as more financial aid, funding for technology grants and increased funding for Title III of the Higher Education Act.
More tax credits to offset college tuition and increased financial literacy are other UNCF priorities. Given the high cost of college as well as the many different types of educational loans, Lomax said, “financial literacy can’t begin in the freshman week of college.”
Other priorities are community engagement and service, more internship opportunities for minority students and activities to spread the word about the work of the nation’s Black colleges.
“We need to keep reminding the country of the treasure it has in HBCUs,” he said.
Lomax also called for greater discussion of higher education in the November presidential election. “There hasn’t been enough discussion about how to prepare students for higher education. There’s too much emphasis on personalities and not enough on issues of substance,” he said.
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