President Obama at 2013 Morehouse College Commencement. (Courtesy Morehouse College)

Is the first African American President investing enough in Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs)?  The answer is not really, say researchers and advocates who see HBCUs as the best resource for addressing the nation’s shortage of well-trained science and technology workers.

The National Association for Equal Opportunity in Higher Education (NAFEO) points out the following:

  • HBCUs are just 3 percent of American colleges and universities, yet they produce 40 percent of the nation’s African Americans STEM degree graduates;
  • HBCUs make up nine of the top 10 colleges for graduating African Americans who later earn a Ph.D. in Science or Engineering; and
  • HBCUs account for four of the nation’s top 10 producers of African American physicians.

Given this data, it’s clear that “As a nation and in the states our investments of our tax dollars do not reflect these outcomes, or the centrality of HBCUs to the nation’s education, economic, excellence and diversity goals,” says NAFEO Executive Director Lezli Baskerville.

At the beginning of his administration, President Obama announced an ambitious goal to increase the nation’s population of college graduates from 40 percent to 60 percent by 2020.  This translates into over 13 million more young people earning associate or baccalaureate degrees.  NAFEO expects that slightly over 1 percent of these new college grads (167,000) will come from HBCUs.

And while this may be a small number, even to hit this mark, HBCU students will need more in the way of federal and state student financial aid. Critics like Jarrett L. Carter from the HBCUDigest.com said the Obama administration has actually made it more difficult for HBCU students to get money for college.

“ will give you more money for but we make harder to get,” notes Carter. He points to the 2011 changes in the Parent PLUS loan program, which was a vital source of HBCU funding.  Under the rule change, parents who had “charge-offs” and debt accounts that were under collection for the past five years were excluded from the program.  This resulted in a loss to HBCUs totaling over $160 million.  To the Administration’s credit, the PLUS loan rule change was largely reversed last month due to the public outcry led by the Congressional Black Caucus and HBCU presidents.

The Obama administration’s new higher education accountability rules have also drawn criticism from HBCU advocates.  They say the rating system tying a college’s eligibility for federal financial aid dollars to retention and graduation could negatively impact HBCUs. These institutions train a disproportionate share of students with less preparation and money needed to stay in school and graduate.

Carter also notes that our first African American president has “…no one on his cabinet, no one in his inner circle, with any ties to or experience with Black colleges.”

While acknowledging these criticisms, supporters of the Obama Administration point to high profile HBCU advocates within the Department of Education including Dr. George Cooper, past South Carolina State University president, and Dr. Ivory Toldson, a former Howard University professor and editor of the Journal of Negro Education.  Both lead the White House Initiative on HBCUs, among others.

These HBCU supporters within the Obama Administration recently got a key ally in the form of Congressman Bobby Scott (D-Va.) who last week became the leading Democrat on the House Education Committee, with direct oversight for federal HBCU funding.  While a graduate of Harvard and Boston College, Scott represents Hampton University and three other HBCUs.