How Trump's budget would affect low-income students, historically black colleges

Many black college presidents are worried.

ByABC News
May 31, 2017, 12:28 PM

— -- President Trump’s proposed budget would cut financial aid funding for thousands of low-income college students, particularly those attending a historically black university, according to various analyses of the plan.

The president’s proposed budget for the 2018 fiscal year, released last week, would drastically reduce funding for federal work-study, Pell Grant reserves and student loan subsidies, while directing more dollars toward defense spending, according to the United Negro College Fund (UNCF), an education advocacy group that has raised nearly $5 billion in scholarships for minority students since its inception over 70 years ago.

If approved in its initial form, the budget would cut federal student aid by more than $143 billion over the next decade, the organization estimates, while the Department of Education's overall budget would see a cut of 13.6 percent.

Minority and low-income students, as well as those attending historically black colleges and universities, are “going to be in a weaker position than they've ever been in” if the president’s budget is approved by Congress,” according to UNCF president and CEO Michael Lomax.

“College leaders are deeply concerned that this budget will not only keep things flat but also reduce resources for their students,” Lomax said in an interview with ABC News. “The proposed budget by the Trump administration really removes a number of the places where a low-income student would go to earn a degree.”

PHOTO: Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos testifies during a hearing before the Labor, Health and Human Services, Education and Related Agencies Subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee, May 24, 2017, on Capitol Hill.
Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos testifies during a hearing before the Labor, Health and Human Services, Education and Related Agencies Subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee, May 24, 2017, on Capitol Hill.
Alex Wong/Getty Images

The NAACP also condemned the budget and projected that it would affect the poor more broadly. The civil rights group accused the Trump administration of targeting the country's poor and shifting resources away from what it called America’s most vulnerable communities.

"Great nations are known by how they care for the old and the vulnerable, not by how much they can take away from them to give to their wealthy friends," NAACP Chairman Leon Russell said in a statement.

If approved, the budget would cut at least 10 percent of key civil rights enforcement positions across the government, including a 7 percent slash in positions at the Department of Education Office for Civil Rights, according to the NAACP.

The budget also targets funds that could help pay the salaries of teachers in low-income communities and would take critical resources away from school districts across the country by zeroing out the $2.1 billion Supporting Effective Instruction State Grants program, or Title II-A of the Every Student Succeeds Act, according to analysis by the Center for American Progress, an independent nonprofit.

The budget would freeze the maximum Pell Grant award, which is need-based and helps low-income students attend college, at its current level of $5,920 per year for the next 10 years, according to the center.

A 'roadmap’ to investing in HBCUs

Lomax said UNCF sent the president’s Office of Management and Budget a letter with a “detailed roadmap” on how to invest in historically black colleges and universities (HBCU) and improve college access for low-income students as a whole. There are about 100 U.S. HBCUs.

The recommendations were all but ignored, he said. Instead, the Trump administration submitted a budget that “would cut federal financial aid lifelines that thousands of HBCU students depend on to attend and remain in college,” Lomax added.

The Office of Management and Budget and the Department of Education did not respond to ABC News’ request for comment but the White House has said the budget would put the country back on track for a healthy economy.

"We're not going to measure compassion by the amount of money that we spend but by the number of people that we help," White House budget director Mick Mulvaney told reporters this last week.

The budget proposal comes just weeks after the president appeared to question the constitutionality of the HBCU Capital Financing Program, a 25-year-old federal program that helps HBCUs finance construction projects. Trump later softened the comments and announced in a statement earlier this month “unwavering support for HBCUs and their critical educational missions.”

He ultimately proposed to increase the financing program by $31 million in the new budget plan but he also proposed $350 million in cuts to Title III, Part A, which is a federal program that offers grants to colleges with large populations of low-income and minority students, according to UNCF.

An estimated 90 percent of HBCU students rely on Pell Grants

David Wilson, president of Morgan State University in Baltimore, said Trump’s comments would have been a lot easier to digest if his “unwavering support” would have been reflected in his budget proposal. Morgan State is one of the nation’s largest HBCUs based on enrollment with about 7,700 students, according to the most recent data from the Pew Research Center.

“If approved, this budget would have a negative impact on a number of students at Morgan,” Wilson said in an interview with ABC News.

About 90 percent of the students at Morgan State qualify for some form of financial aid, and more than half of them qualify for the Pell Grant, which does not have to be repaid. HBCUs are an area of focus for advocates of college access because they have a much higher rate of low-income students.

Estimates show that about 90 percent of HBCU students rely on Pell Grants to help cover their tuition, versus about 39 of the general college student population.

In addition to the Pell Grant freeze, Wilson said the proposed elimination of Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grants, which supplements Pell awards for the poorest students, would be detrimental.

“The elimination of the SEOG program would mean that we would have to send even more students home,” said Wilson, who has worked in higher education for more than 30 years. “Many of them would drop out of college if they cannot find other resources, and many of them cannot.”

Trump has also requested that the low-interest rate Perkins Loan Program be phased out over time, which Morgan State’s Wilson said would leave many low-income students with fewer financial options and more debt.

“We would hate to see that go because the student loan debt rate at Morgan is already higher than the national average,” Wilson said.

The president’s budget would, however, maintain funding for “summer” Pell grants, but opponents of the proposal said that is not enough to make up for the programs that would be cut or level-funded – maintained, but without increases to adjust for inflation.

“The year-round Pell grant is a good thing, but then you’re taking away all of these other programs that are so necessary for students coming from poor families,” Wilson said. “I just don’t think that’s a good thing if you are serious about breaking the cycle of poverty in this country.”

Johnny Taylor Jr., president of HBCU advocacy group the Thurgood Marshall College Fund, said his organization is now aiming its advocacy efforts at Congress, which appears unlikely to approve the budget in its initial form.

“The president's budget is out now and it ain't changing, so why would you waste time talking about what you don't like about a budget that's already been released,” Taylor asked.

The Thurgood Marshall College Fund intends to lobby members of Congress, specifically Republicans in the South who have HBCUs in their districts, to voice the concerns of its member institutions, he said.

Taylor said the budget is flawed, but it isn’t all “doom and gloom,” especially because allocations for a number of core education programs were left unchanged from the previous year.

“Generally speaking, the budget was what I expected and I have long said, and meant, that flat is a win in this environment,” Taylor said. "The fact that we are not starting with a cut in some areas from last year is a much better place to begin our negotiations."

‘Historically low purchasing power’

Morgan State’s Wilson and UNCF CEO Lomax disagreed, with the later noting that a lack of inflation adjustments to the Pell Grant, for example, would drive its already “historically low purchasing power” even lower.

The two also disagreed with the idea that cuts were aimed at programs that had been deemed ineffective.

“These are programs that have been enormously effective of the Morgan campus, and based on what I hear from other presidents at HBCUs, these programs have been effective on those campuses as well,” Wilson said.

Taylor said he and his organization have been working with lawmakers, particularly Republicans who have HBCUs in their districts, to help them understand what the HBCU community needs.

The Trump administration has had trouble getting on the same page with HBCU leaders this year.

HBCU advocates flew into an uproar in February after Education Secretary Betsy DeVos issued a statement that called HBCUs “real pioneers when it comes to school choice.”

Some argued that DeVos' statement presented HBCUs as though they were created as a better option to traditionally white universities when the Department of Education says on its own website that HBCUs were established because “there was no structured higher education system for black students.”

DeVos was also booed while giving the commencement address at historically black Bethune-Cookman University in Daytona Beach, Florida, last month.

The Trump administration has made attempts to strengthen its relationship with the HBCU community. In February, Trump held a meeting with dozens of HBCU leaders at the White House to discuss the needs of their institutions.

‘Little more than a photo op’

But many critics of the meeting, including Wilson, said the meeting in the Oval Office appeared to be “little more than a photo op.”

“There was no substantive conversation at all. It was maybe about a five- to seven-minute visit in the Oval Office and no more than that.

Some of the leaders, including Howard University president Wayne A.I. Frederick, received harsh criticism on campus for even attending the meeting.

Graffiti messages were reportedly spotted at Howard, an HBCU, that read: "Welcome to the Trump Plantation. Overseer: Wayne A.I. Frederick," "Stand for something or fall for anything" and "Wayne Frederick doesn't care about black people."

Frederick declined ABC News’ requests for comment.

But Taylor, president of the Thurgood Marshall College Fund, viewed the meeting as beneficial because it brought HBCU leaders into the policy conversation.

"I am hopeful, but I am not yet convinced,” Taylor said. “We at least have some indications that the president wants to do the right thing by this community, but we've got to help him to understand what ‘right’ means.”

Follow the money

He said the budget proposal is a reminder that leaders in higher education must always “follow the money.”

“We should be applying for grants within Homeland Security and the Department of Defense that would bring additional cash to our campuses,” Taylor said, pointing to cybersecurity as an example of an area with untapped potential.

“If that's where the increased spending is going to go, then we want to partake in those increases.”

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