On May 8, the chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC), Rep. Cedric Richmond (D-La.), and the ranking member of the House Judiciary Committee, Rep. John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.), issued the following statement in response to President Trump’s attempt to walk back his recent comments on HBCUs. While signing a $1.1 trillion omnibus bill on May 5 that would keep the federal government running until September, President Trump questioned the constitutionality of HBCU funding.

“Based on President Trump’s record on HBCUs, we think it’s safe to say that he meant what he said [May 5] and that last night’s statement, much like the HBCU executive order, meeting, and photo, are just PR.

“He held a meeting with more than 70 HBCU presidents in February and then said after the meeting that they didn’t ask him for anything even though they did. He signed an executive order that moves the HBCU initiative into the White House but does little else. In addition, his budget proposes to give HBCUs the same amount of funding they received last year, even though their operational costs are increasing, and to cut programs like Pell Grants that support students served by these schools.

“Sadly and shamefully, HBCUs, including the schools that President Trump met with, are left to wonder whether he wants to help or hurt them. If President Trump really wants to help HBCUs, he’ll implement the proposals the CBC has suggested to him in several letters (February 27 and March 22), including the letter we sent him on April 27 calling for robust funding for a host of programs that support students served by these schools.”

The $1.1 trillion omnibus bill that President Trump signed included funding for year-around Pell Grants ($22.5 billion), TRIO ($950 million), and Gear Up ($340 million) and was the result of negotiations by Congressional Republicans and Democrats that began before President Trump took office.

The United Negro College Fund (UNCF) on May 6 issued the following statement on President Trump’s signing statement of the FY 2017 Omnibus Appropriations Act, which included a reference that the Historically Black College and University (HBCU) Capital Financing Program may be reviewed for its compliance with the Constitution:

Following the public release of President Trump’s signing statement, UNCF sought clarification from the White House and received informal assurance from White House officials that the paragraph is not intended to indicate any policy change toward HBCUs and that the administration intends to implement the HBCU Capital Financing Program. Nonetheless, UNCF urges the White House to issue an official clarification of its policy to the HBCU community, as the HBCU Capital Financing program has provided tremendous value to HBCUs and the students they serve over the past 25 years.

The HBCU Capital Financing Program, administered by the U.S. Department of Education, provides low-interest loans to HBCUs to finance infrastructure improvements on their campuses. Specifically, the program has enabled more than 40 public and private HBCUs to repair, renovate, and construct classrooms, libraries, science laboratories, and dormitories, helping to ensure that HBCU students can learn in modern facilities with modern equipment and up-to-date technology that is essential in today’s economy. For example, using HBCU Capital Financing loans, Bethune-Cookman University in Florida renovated a student center and provided new student housing; Johnson C. Smith University in North Carolina built a new science and technology facility; and several HBCUs in Louisiana and Mississippi were able to rebuild their campuses after severe damage caused by major hurricanes. This federal loan program has become even more essential to HBCUs, considering recent research evidence that HBCUs pay more to secure capital financing in the private bond markets than non-HBCUs.

The HBCU Capital Financing Program is authorized under Title III, Part D of the Higher Education Act (HEA), which also authorizes federal grants to HBCUs for operating assistance and endowments under Title III, Parts B and C. The designation of institutions that are eligible for Title III federal assistance has been settled for over 50 years, since the enactment of the HEA in 1965. Eligible institutions must meet statutory criteria, not based on race, but rather on mission, accreditation status and year the institution was established. Today, 101 HBCUs qualify for this assistance, many of which have a racially diverse student enrollment, faculty and staff. For instance, Bluefield State College in West Virginia is designated as an HBCU, but according to NCES data, Bluefield enrolls a population that is 85 percent white and only nine percent African American.

The provision in President Trump’s signing statement regarding this critical HBCU program may simply be lawyers at the Office of Management and Budget being overly cautious and perhaps not fully understanding the legal basis for federal HBCU programs. However, these programs have been thoroughly vetted by the Congress and prior administrations, and the new administration must eliminate any doubt as to their Constitutionality.

UNCF looks forward to working with the White House and the U.S. Department of Education to continue to communicate the importance of this program and others that positively impact HBCUs and the students they have served for more than 150 years.