Bigger Tent for Minority-Serving Colleges

Doug Lederman, Inside Higher Ed, October 9, 2007

The most obvious winners in the education budget bill that President Bush signed into law late last month are the students who will eventually receive the increased Pell Grants and lowered loan interest rates that are the measure’s primary focus. But another major beneficiary of the College Cost Reduction and Access Act are colleges and universities that serve significant numbers of minority students, including institutions that have meaningful proportions of Asian and Native American students and others that are “predominantly” but not “historically” black—that will be eligible for federal funds for the first time.

The backers of the new programs say they will provide much-needed financial support for colleges that are doing the heavy lifting of increasing numbers of students who are significantly underrepresented in higher education, who overwhelmingly come from low-income backgrounds and need to play catchup academically because they’ve been shortchanged by their high schools. But critics warn—and even some supporters worry—that the creation of new programs based on race could be open to legal challenge at a time of heightened scrutiny of such classifications.

The new law provides $510 million over two years (fiscal 2007-8 and 2008-9) for minority-serving colleges for a variety of purposes, including to buy lab equipment and cover instructional costs (see page 118 of this document for a description).

Most of the money would go to existing programs for groups of institutions that are accustomed to such funds: $200 million in competitive grants for Hispanic-serving institutions, with an emphasis on increasing the number of low-income students in science and math fields; $170 million for historically black colleges and universities; $60 million for tribal colleges; and $30 million for Alaskan/Hawaiian Native institutions.

But the measure also creates three entirely new classifications of colleges that educate students from minority groups. For the first time, the federal government will provide funds to:

• “Predominantly black” colleges, where at least 40 percent of the undergraduate students are black and at least half of all undergrads are low-income or first-generation college students ($30 million over two years).

• Asian/Pacific Islander serving colleges, where at least 10 percent of the students are from those racial groups and at least half are low-income or first generation ($10 million over two years).

• Native American-serving nontribal colleges, where at least 10 percent of the undergraduates are American Indian ($10 million over two years).

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The push to recognize “predominantly black” institutions has not always been embraced by historically black institutions. Many of them fought (successfully) a 2005 effort by New York’s Owens to amend the Higher Education Act to let predominantly black institutions compete for funds (under the Education Department’s Title III program) that have been reserved for historically black institutions. They complained that HBCU’s are already struggling financially and that further divvying up the limited funds they receive was the wrong way to go about strengthening institutions that have other sources of funds. (Similar arguments have been made about tribal colleges and nontribal Native American serving institutions.)

Opponents of the 2005 proposal also said they feared that letting predominantly black institutions into the Title III program could subject the program to potential legal challenge. The 1964 designation given to historically black colleges was carefully constructed based not on the fact that they enrolled certain numbers of black students, but because they had long focused on educating black students and had long suffered discrimination from state and federal governments.

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Blakey, who raised concerns about the potential legal threat raised by the proposed 2005 change, said the new programs enacted in the cost reduction law is constitutionally permissible, because “race is only one factor” in the programs’ creation, “and all of the rest of the factors are race neutral.”

But others aren’t so sure. Roger Clegg, who as president of the Center for Equal Opportunity has made a living out of challenging the legality of affirmative action and other programs, said the new law designates institutions “based primarily on race.” “Unlike with historically black colleges, you don’t have the remedial justification [for using race] if it’s being done strictly on the basis of the percentage of students there. And you don’t have the diversity justification [for affirmative action] either, because the whole point of the diversity rationale is that you are using it in the admissions context to increase the numbers.”

Added Clegg: “I don’t think this is constitutional, and I certainly don’t think it’s fair.”

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