Federal funding is flat
Although some folks are calling the president’s budget “skinny” because it lacks substance for Black education, there’s actually a silver lining for Historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) in the federal spending plan. But turning the potential into actual dollars will require a paradigm shift in the way historically Black colleges and universities have approached funding from the federal government.
When President Donald Trump announced that he would sign an executive order in support of HBCUs — which produce a significant share of the nation’s Black graduates, including 50 percent of all Black doctors — advocates for these institutions responded with both skepticism and anticipation. For example, Johnny Taylor, Jr., president of the Thurgood Marshall College Fund, told the Washington Post that he had “spent a lot of time on the phone in recent days, talking with presidents and chancellors who are skeptical of the motives.”
Similarly, Dr. Michael Lomax, president/CEO of the United Negro College Fund, told Essence magazine, “The president has set a high bar; however, we await the opportunity to see if the administration will meet their pledges, specifically as it pertains to funding for HBCUs.”
Federal funding supports HBCUs in several ways, such as grants that require a 1-to-1 match. In an April 4 radio interview with HBCU Digest, Rep. Alma Adams, D-N.C. noted that with the 1-1 match, schools that are located in states that only provide 25 percent of the required match, the HBCUs must come up with the additional revenue to receive their full federal funding. There are also Pell grants to underprivileged students, which make the schools dependent on enrollment in order to receive funding Schools also receive grants for infrastructure.
There is, however, another revenue source that HBCUs are not maximizing to its full potential: income through contracts, where the schools conduct research and develop innovation for the government. This can be through the performance of a service the government needs or the creation of a product that can be commercialized, particularly in the area of technology. According to Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.), HBCUs are in a position to be an important economic engine.
“They’ve played a historical role and I believe they’ll have as big a role to play as we look to diversify certain areas of our economy — specifically our STEM areas,” Scott said during a meeting among HBCU leaders and Hill Republicans.
And that’s where Black institutions of higher education can generate revenue to replace what they may not get through the grants that traditionally have kept their doors open.
“There are two critical things that HBCUs need to do to thrive in today’s climate,” Dr. Chance Glenn told HBCU engineering deans and professors who had gathered in Washington, D.C. in February during the Black Engineers of the Year Awards conference. “Secure revenue from previously untapped sources…and join together to speak with one voice, to partner and bring together the resources we all have individually and create a more powerful collective face.”
Glenn, who was facilitating a seminar titled, “Partnering to Generate Revenue From R&D Contracting Opportunities,” is dean of the College of Engineering, Technology and Physical Sciences at Alabama A&M University. He also is executive director of the AAMU-RISE Foundation. RISE is the acronym for research, innovation, science, and engineering. The foundation was established in 2014 for the expressed purpose of going after government contracts on behalf of the university.
The AAMU-RISE Foundation is proficient in executing government contracts for research and development. Areas of expertise include defense, aerospace, cyber security, sustainable energy sources, as well as food production and emerging biotechnologies. In addition to fulfilling the needs of federal agencies, the foundation leverages all of the university’s capabilities to collaborate with industry partners. Next they want to team up with other academic institutions.
“Grants are the way you have been doing things, but let’s move toward getting more money, more revenue, more internships for the students, but also more jobs for the faculty members,” said Latonia Jones, an expert in government contracting who co-facilitated the seminar with Glenn.
Consider that in fiscal year 2015, the federal budget allocated $438 billion for contracts, and the Department of Defense issued 62 percent of those contracts. President Trump’s proposed budget calls for a 10 percent increase in defense spending at a time when other agencies, including the Department of Education, will see their budgets shrink. That means that there will be more money available for HBCUs who pursue DOD contracts.
That’s why Glenn is putting together a consortium of HBCUs to create a cyber security center. Another sweet spot for HBCUs is NASA. According to Jones, the agency has set a goal of awarding one percent of its budget to HBCUs. That might seem like a pittance, but NASA expects to award $19 billion in 2017. That equates to $190 million — in one year — available for HBCUs capable of delivering on contracts.
To assist smaller schools that have never secured or performed under a federal contract, Jones has created the Knowledge Sharing Center and is partnering with the AAMU-RISE Foundation to train HBCU administrators and faculty. Their goal is to increase the number of schools that can collaborate on a contract, thus generating revenue for the institutions at a time when their grant income will remain flat or decrease.
Additionally, the AAMU-RISE Foundation, in collaboration with the school’s Center for Entrepreneurship, Innovation and Economic Development, will host a small business innovation research conference April 23-25 to bring together experts from government agencies, leading R&D companies, and academic institutions. They will be sharing their expertise, thus enabling HBCUs to partner with the government and its contractors as they develop and commercialize innovative technologies.
Understandably, HBCU leaders and advocates are disappointed that traditional grants to their institutions will remain flat for the foreseeable future with the threat of decline in years ahead. But for those schools that are prepared to pursue and execute contracts, particularly for technology, there is money to go and get.
Sharon Brooks Hodge is a freelance writer and communications consultant who works with historically Black colleges and universities.