The following op-ed is cross-posted from The Undefeated
By B. John King Jr.
Promoting equity and excellence in education is my top priority as Secretary of Education. I began my career in education as a high school social studies teacher, and I am always inspired when I meet students and educators who are creating opportunities for others and solving important challenges that we face as a society. Last month, I had the opportunity to do that at Tuskegee University, where students are blazing new pathways in the sciences, technology, engineering and math (STEM). They are building on a record of scientific discovery and public service established by campus luminaries like George Washington Carver and Vera King Farris.
That history is special to me because my uncle Haldane King, who helped raise me after my parents passed away, was among the famed Tuskegee Airmen. The Airmen courageously served our nation in World War II, despite the discrimination that they often faced here at home. Today, a new generation of students at Tuskegee, and at historically black colleges and universities (HBCU) across the country, are building on that tradition of excellence and making their mark as leaders on campus and in their communities.
For the last three years, we have honored the commitment of hundreds of student leaders as HBCU All-Stars. They play a key role as ambassadors for their universities and represent the power of civic engagement to change lives. This year, honorees include Danielle Ebelle, a leader in the biology and physics clubs at Virginia Union University. Danielle is studying to become an oncologist, and using her research skills in the lab to develop cures for cancer. Another All-Star in his class, Terrance McNeil, is a graduate student at Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University. He is leading important work in education policy focused on helping ensure that other HBCU students have the opportunity to succeed. Danielle and Terrance’s stories are just a handful of the thousands of HBCU students who are working hard to make things better for others. They are not only striving to complete their degrees, but also ensuring that their peers succeed as well.
As a nation, we are better off because of the efforts of students like Danielle and Terrance. That is why, throughout his administration, President Obama has supported HBCU students, faculty, and the institutions themselves. Each year, at the Department of Education, we invest over $4 billion in HBCUs, so they can offer college degrees that are accessible and affordable, and so that campuses are providing the kind of supports that drive student success. We have also fought hard to strengthen the Pell Grant programs, and have seen Pell Grant funding for HBCU students rise from $523 million in 2007 to $824 million in 2014—amounting to more than a 150-percent increase.
While we are tremendously proud of our work to support HBCUs and their students, we also recognize that there is work ahead to make sure all students have the opportunities they deserve. One effort integral to this work is President Obama’s America’s College Promise (ACP) plan to provide two years of community college free for hard-working students. America’s College Promise also provides grants to four-year HBCUs and Minority Serving Institutions (MSIs) to provide more new or transfer low-income students with up to two years at a four-year college at zero or significantly reduced tuition.
And this year, our Department is also advocating for the creation of a $30 million dollar Innovation for Completion Fund for HBCUs and MSIs that would help students from low-income backgrounds overcome challenges and persist through graduation day. The Fund would build on the work underway at Hampton University, Jackson State University, Delaware State University, and Spelman College to develop innovative programs and evidence-based practices that help students from all backgrounds achieve at a high level. Their projects—selected from hundreds of applications—were awarded more than $11 million in grants combined through the First in the World program to promote even more opportunities for students on campus.
Investing in HBCUs is not only the right thing to do, it’s also vital for the strength of our economy. Although we are making important strides toward improving STEM education, the STEM workforce in many places does not fully represent the great diversity that makes our nation strong. At a time when we are more focused than ever on increasing STEM graduates in this country, I am proud to see that our HBCUs, which make up only 3 percent of the higher education campuses in the U.S., produce nearly 30 percent of African-American students with bachelor’s degrees in STEM fields. Those students are playing a key role as the next generation of great inventors and innovators.
Our federal agency partners also recognize the importance of investing in those students, and just a few weeks ago, the National Science Foundation awarded over $1 million in grants to Morgan State University. Those grants will support cutting-edge research in computer science, engineering, and other STEM fields that could lead to dramatic breakthroughs that improve lives.
Students and families recognize the unique opportunities that HBCUs can offer to pursue educational excellence. At campuses across the country, HBCUs are seeing rising enrollment and interest in their programs—which represents an important opportunity to build on the rich history at those universities. WhenPresident Obama gave a powerful commencement address at Howard University this year, he spoke about how students are building upon HBCU’s tradition of educational excellence. He told the story of one graduate, Ciearra Jefferson, who declined a full scholarship to Harvard to enroll at Howard and become the first in her family to graduate college. After graduation, Ciearra chose to dedicate her career to public health and serving others in her hometown of Detroit. Empowered by the education they earned at HBCUs, students like Ciearra, Danielle and Terrance are stepping up to solve our most pressing 21st-century challenges. They are advancing innovations in research, engineering, technology and public service that will transform our communities and our nation for the better.