Several college students had the honor of attendance at last night's Presidential State of the Union address, but none will have the captive audience of an historically black college campus cheering on their big moments.
A community college student, a Stanford University medical student, a first-generation college student from the University of Hartford and the child of illegal immigrants will all have face time before an international audience, and their faces will be the images of President Barack Obama's vision for education reforms.
But none of those faces or reforms reflect an interest or respect for America's HBCUs, and that state of neglect is not a good look for an administration which has specialized in symbolism for black colleges, but has neutralized their effectiveness with a unique lack of compassion and investment.
President Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama have served as commencement speakers for more than a half dozen HBCUs, yet many of these same HBCUs have been dealt extreme financial hardship through changes to the federal Pell Grant and PLUS Loan programs, reductions in Title III funding and millions denied to HBCUs through research and grant allocations from federal agencies.
In a smoke-and-mirrors effort to feign support for HBCUs, the White House created an 'HBCU All-Stars' program, through which high-achieving students could apply to serve as goodwill ambassadors for HBCUs at select programming and White House education-related events. But even the White House's promise to feature the work and successes of these students on the White House Initiative on HBCUs web portal has fallen flat -- along with the opportunity for even one of the 75 students selected for this program to represent all 105 HBCUs at the State of the Union address.
The optics are no longer important for HBCUs to the Obama Administration; even White House Initiative Deputy Director Ivory Toldson has doubled-down on the "value" of giving more students more money to attend schools other than HBCUs. From Dr. Toldson's recent blog entry on the subject:
The America’s College Promise proposal can supplement the changes already occurring at four-year HBCUs by covering the cost of tuition during the years that students are receiving remedial developmental education. In addition, the proposal would require states to maintain or increase existing higher education investments, as a condition of participating in this historic federal program. This means the Administration’s proposal would both supplement state higher education budgets and safeguard state HBCUs from budget cuts.
Or, it could mean that states either won't opt in to the program, or will maintain higher ed investment numbers and redirect funds to predominantly white institutions or community colleges. Further, if more students are performing better at the community college level by way of this program, what is to keep larger, more developed PWIs with more scholarship money from enticing these same students away from HBCUs?
After all, community colleges have increased in the number of black students attending, but this has not created an exponential rush on HBCUs from community college transfers, despite an increase in articulation agreements and partnerships between HBCUs and two-year schools, and with 12 historically black community colleges being located in states with public and private four-year HBCUs.
Last night's State of the Union will give the nation a good glimpse at the president's view on higher education. And once again, HBCUs remain well outside of his public line of sight, but not outside of his line of fire.