theGrio Q & A: Obama's HBCU czar on making reform matter

Today, President Barack Obama signed the Health care and Education Reconciliation Act of 2010 into law. No one has missed the health care reform mission of the bill, but few are discussing the educational element of the bill, particularly its increased support for HBCUs (Historically Black Colleges and Universities) and PBIs (Predominantly Black Institutions) or simply MSIs (Minority Serving Institutions).

“This package has been a long-standing priority of our Administration’s providing the financial assistance that students need to attend college,” the White House said in a statement. “It was necessary to pass this bill as soon as possible to get middle class families the assistance they need to make their children’s college dreams come true.”

Some of the provisions include a proposed commitment of $1 billion over a 10-year period to HBCUs and PBIs, specifically $850 million to HBCUs and $150 million to PBIs, an increase in Pell Grant awards that is estimated to benefit 200,000 African-American students and an income-based student loan repayment program which would draw 10 percent of a graduate’s income as well as potentially dissolve that debt for those choosing public service careers or if the debt remains unretired after 20 years.

TheGrio caught up with Dr. John S. Wilson, a Morehouse and Harvard alum who was appointed Executive Director of the White House Initiative on Historically Black Colleges and Universities in July 2009, to discuss this landmark legislation. Wilson spent 16 years at MIT, where he served as director of foundation relations and assistant provost, and most recently taught at George Washington University

theGrio: Please explain some of the major provisions of this initiative.

Dr. John S. Wilson: Well let me give you context first. The president of the United States and the Secretary of Education have together established a 2020 goal. That means that by the year of 2020 we intend to have a greater percentage of college graduates than any country in the world, and we all realize that we can’t reach that goal without the help of HBCUs. So therefore the legislation that President Obama will sign tomorrow provides some real direct support to HBCUs and to Predominantly Black Institutions. Together we are talking about a billion dollars over the next 10 years. That money will be used to renew and reform and expand programming in these institutions and to strengthen them in such a way that they contribute to our pursuit of the 2020 goal.

Talk about the Pell grant, (especially the) student loan repayment aspect.

The course for direct institutional support is what I was referring to first, the billion dollars over 10 years. There will also be a major boost in Pell grants. That might be between two and $3,000 (per student). A large percentage of HBCU students come from low-income families; you’re talking about more than 50 percent, so this will be very helpful.

Let’s go back to that direct institutional support. With the escalating costs of running institutions, will a billion dollars over 10 years be enough?

Well you’ll never hear anyone say that it’s enough. If you were to ask Harvard, they would not say it was enough, and their endowment is $30 billion. It is not meant to satisfy or address every financial need but it is an important contribution to have. I’m running an office right now that believes in that level of support going to HBCUs. We are going to be working with the federal agency as they increase overall support for HBCUs, and those dollars will only be supplemental to the dollars we’re talking about right now.

Is this funding for all HBCUs or just public HBCUs?

No, it’s funding for all HBCUs and it’s funding that will be channeled to all predominantly black institutions as well. So, yes, all HBCUs are eligible and that’s the larger portion of the funding.

Let our readers know why this level of funding is needed. Please point out some areas in particular that HBCUs lag behind in relation to some other schools.

I don’t see where it’s productive to talk about HBCUs lagging behind other schools. I think [the Healthcare and Education Affordability Act intends] to strengthen their capacity to deliver a competitive education and it really is less on their needs. [The intent] is definitely to see that HBCUs educate students in greater numbers and to greater excellence . . .

So this is an investment in putting HBCUs, as well as other institutions, on par with the needs for the 21st century?

It is certainly an investment and wanted by President Barack Obama….He wants to change the [discussion] we have about the future of HBCUs. We want more [people] to appreciate what they do and invest in what they do.

Why is now the time?

Now is the time to do it. Really, this is overdue. We happen to have a president who is right for the job and is willing to do it.

How soon does this goes into effect?

It goes into effect as of his signing. The actual money will be available to HBCUs starting in October.

One of the last questions I wanted to ask is in relation to math and sciences. Why is strengthening that legacy of particular concern?

It’s a particular concern because it’s a particular concern to the president. There is a STEM [Science, Technology, Engineering and Math] emphasis in this administration throughout, particularly in the Department of Education. We have all recognized that a third of the degrees held by African-Americans [in math and the sciences] did their undergraduate work at HBCUs.

So overall this will help us as a nation better compete in the global economy?