Leaders of historically Black colleges and universities say President Joe Biden's budget package falls far short of how much the historically underfunded institutions need.
The aid, currently penciled in for $1.45 billion in the bill to be distributed over a period of four years beginning in 2022, is much less than supporters anticipated, putting HBCUs at a disadvantage and risking Biden's support from a key constituency.
And the final number for HBCUs could be even lower: The president's original $3.5 trillion Build Back Better plan is under intense negotiations in Congress, where key moderates want a more modest plan closer to $2 trillion.
"We were terribly supportive because no president has ever ... in the history of this nation, put these institutions so central to transformative change and investment," Lodriguez Murray, a senior vice president for the United Negro College Fund.
But now, Murray says, the dollar amount under consideration is far too small to affect that kind of change.
"For Congress to not follow through on (Biden's) plan is earth-shattering for the institutions," he said.
The concerns come ahead of a Wednesday hearing by a House subcommittee on higher education: "Homecoming: The Historical Roots and Continued Contributions of HBCUs."
The presidents of the United Negro College Fund's 37 member institutions sent a letter to congressional leaders Friday to urge Congress to pass the bill with more provisions for HBCUs. For instance, the leaders want half of the money reserved for HBCUs and minority-serving institutions allocated exclusively to HBCUs.
"Although HBCUs generate a significant return on investment, they are historically underfunded, face discrimination with investments, and have tighter budgets based almost exclusively on tuition from underserved students," the letter says.
'Historically underfunded,' HBCUs face challenges for funds
A combined $29.3 billion to reduce tuition costs and modernize institutional research facilities is also included in the bill, but HBCUs will have to compete against other minority-serving institutions, including those with Hispanic or Alaska Native students, for the funding.
"There is a massive disadvantage for HBCUs," Walter Kimbrough, president of Dillard University in New Orleans said. "To qualify to be a Hispanic serving institution, 25% of your student body has to be (Hispanic.) As soon as you get to the 25% threshold, you then qualify for (the) money."
"The University of Texas at Austin is now a Hispanic-serving institution. There's no way in the world Dillard competes with UTA. They probably have a grant writing team that's bigger than my academic departments," he added.
Dr. Michael J. Sorrell, president of Paul Quinn College in Dallas, said competition isn't unfair, but the rules should consider diverse needs.
"You have to compare apples to apples. And if you would like institutions that are smaller, private ... (that) are interested in developing their research footprint and making it broader, then you have to create inlets which the playing field is level." Sorrell told USA TODAY.
"That (budget) money would allow us to continue to expand that model, which is reducing student loan debt by tens of thousands of dollars," Sorrell said.
Many of the 228,000 Black students who annually enroll in the country's 107 HBCUs are from low-income households. The institutions earn less in tuition revenue and work with fewer financial resources because of who they serve, according to a report by The Brookings Institution.
But HBCUs confer about one out of eight bachelor's degrees earned by Black students and produce 42% of Black engineers and 80% of Black judges in the U.S. alone. Forty percent of Black members of Congress also graduated from an HBCU, as did Vice President Kamala Harris, who attended Howard University.
Will promises be kept?
Two of the institutions' biggest advocates in the House, Rep. Bobby Scott, D-Va., and Rep. Alma Adams, D-N.C., said they remain committed to the initial objectives.
Earlier this month, Adams, who is an alumna of the HBCU North Carolina A&T State University, threatened to vote no on the bill unless billions more in federal aid are allocated to the institutions.
"We can't build back better unless we build our HBCUs back better. Promises made must be promises kept," Adams said, according to Punchbowl News.
Sam Spencer, a spokesman for Adams, said the way funding is currently set up is an equity issue for the congresswoman.
"Having that sort of competition doesn't rectify the long history of disinvestment and underinvestment in (HBCUs), relative to other institutions," Spencer said. "In all candor, there are a lot of HBCUs that don't have a grant writing department or government relations department that can really do the immense legwork that is required to compete for a lot of these grants."
Scott, who chairs the House Education & Labor Committee, said in a statement to USA TODAY: "Since I became Chair of the House Education and Labor Committee, Congress has delivered historic levels of funding for Historically Black Colleges and Universities."
"The Build Back Better Act includes another significant investment in these critical institutions. I am committed to making sure that we continue investing in our HBCUs and their students," Scott added.
A pandemic response, not a long-term strategy
In May, the Education Department announced more than $36 billion in emergency grants under the American Rescue Plan to help over 5,000 colleges and universities . Another $3.2 billion in grants under the ARPs Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund followed in July.
More than $10 billion of ARP funds went to community colleges while $6 billion was allocated to minority-serving institutions.
But Kimbrough said the influx of money is an exception to the norm.
"It wasn't like this was an initiative that everyone did just to do it for HBCUs. This was in response to the pandemic," he said. "That still isn't an infrastructure investment that has long-term impact. And that's what we need to start doing now."
"People talk about understanding the HBCU experience and the resources needed," Sorrell said. "It's difficult in your mind to understand what it is to be institutions that have been chronically underfunded for generations. Not for years. Not for a funding cycle. For the entirety of their existence."
"This was always going to be a fight. And we were always going to have to fight the fight. And that's what we're doing," he added.
Reach out to Chelsey Cox on Twitter at @therealco.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Black colleges left behind by Biden budget reconciliation bill