For months, Congress has battled over a sweeping social spending bill. In the thick of the $2-trillion Build Back Better proposal — which has passed the House and now faces an uncertain future in the Senate — are a number of provisions that could have a significant effect on equity in higher education.
Over all, the bill would provide $10 billion dollars to minority-serving institutions. The money could help those colleges improve research, infrastructure, and student services.
Experts, administrators, and students I’ve talked with in recent weeks are enthusiastic about how that money could help these institutions, which offer a place of learning for students who often have been marginalized in our country. They also talked about the big challenges these institutions face and what changes could happen with the recent national attention.
Here’s some of what I’ve heard:
We are still dealing with the ramifications of decades-long disinvestment.
In her research
, Denise Smith, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation
, details how the historical exclusion of federal aid to Black colleges and universities have led to lingering funding disparities and financial struggles.
A possible starting solution? Bolstering federal aid for research and development at HBCUs could also help position the universities to move up in Carnegie classification, she says, which in turn would make them eligible for more philanthropic research funds. Right now, Smith says, there are no HBCUs with the top, R1, research university status, although there are eleven that have the second-highest, R2, status.
Another key? Closing the gap in endowment size between HBCUs and predominantly white colleges, Smith says. The endowments of public HBCUs are 3.5 times smaller than those of other public colleges, she says. And the gap is larger among privates — private HBCUs have a seventh of the average endowment of a private non-HBCU.
“The key to better supporting students of color is focusing on HBCUs,“ Smith says, "which have long been places that promote upper mobility within the black community and have changed the lives of millions of Black Americans.”
Helping many of these colleges means helping entire communities.
The role of community looms especially large for tribal colleges and universities, says Cheryl Crazy Bull, president and CEO of the American Indian College Fund.
Tribal colleges typically provide a wide range of outreach programs, including culturally relevant early childhood education or, in some cases, housing options for students with children. In many ways, they act like community centers, where people of all ages gather.
“Native students, in general, say that they’re going to college because they want to be able to take care of their families, they want to give back,” Crazy Bull says.
They tend to want to help reinvigorate their communities, which have been devastated by their historical — and also current — relationship with the government.
Tribal colleges also play a key role in helping Native students earn degrees. For Native students who travel three or more hours away for college, Crazy Bull says, the likelihood of staying in college and graduating decreases.
More federal dollars could help tribal colleges with some urgent needs, such as updated infrastructure and technologies, Crazy Bill says, that then could help the institutions better serve their students and recruit and retain faculty — another key challenge.
How do we make sure minority-enrolling institutions are truly minority-serving institutions?
Having a rapidly growing Hispanic and Latino population means that the nation also has a growing population of Hispanic-serving institutions — at least technically.
To qualify as a Hispanic-serving institution, a university must have a student body that is at least 25 percent Hispanic, according to the federal definition. But that leads some people to ask: How well, really, do all of those institutions meet the needs of their Hispanic students?
A designation based upon demographics and geographies should only be the start, says Deborah Santiago, chief executive officer of Excelencia in Education.
Universities that become an HSI should be required to invest specifically in the students with the greatest need, Santiago says. Beyond enrollment, the colleges should create strategies for Hispanic students that focus on retention, faculty representation, and financial aid.
Across the country, there remain big gaps in educational outcomes among Hispanic populations. The graduation rate for Hispanic students, for example, is 12 percentage points lower than for white non-Hispanic students at four-year colleges, according to Excelencia in Education.
Kimberly Espy, provost of the University of Texas at San Antonio — one of the nation’s 569 Hispanic-serving institutions — says access to higher education still varies despite the promise of a student. And that’s what she works to change.
“Talent is clearly equally distributed across our population,” she says, “and yet opportunities aren’t.”
One specific, and key, way she says her university is helping students persist through college is through an emergency aid fund. Sudden emergencies that can create what might seem like small financial burdens to others can be make or break for some students’ college dreams.
“Sometimes students get in a car accident and it’s a $300 repair, and they don’t have $300 sitting in their bank account,” Espy says. “That means that then they stop going to school in order to pay for their car.”
+ Read more from The Chronicle about the growth of Hispanic-serving institutions, and questions about how well they help students.