On Tuesday, President Trump signed an executive order in support of the nation’s historically black colleges and universities; however, the order does not differ in any significant way from what previous presidents have done.
In fact, the order follows the playbook of previous administrations by creating an advisory board and urging federal agencies to work closely with the schools to identify funding opportunities.
In a statement from U. S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos—yes, the same statement in which she referred to HBCUs as “pioneers of school choice” (she has since walked that statement back)—she was clear:
“Rather than focus solely on funding, we must be willing to make the tangible, structural reforms that will allow students to reach their full potential.”
As one journalist said, that doesn’t leave much room for interpretation.
A Republican president, Ronald Reagan, created the White House Initiative on Historically Black Colleges and Universities in 1981. In 2002, President George W. Bush moved the initiative from the White House to the Department of Education. Now Trump is moving it back to the White House in response to a request from Johnny C. Taylor, president and CEO of the Thurgood Marshall College Fund.
But what HBCU leaders want is greater investment. No funding commitments are included in the executive order, although Taylor had requested that as well.
Trump has promised to do more for black colleges than any previous president, but isn’t that just Trump hyperbole?
Shavar Jeffries, president of Democrats for Education Reform, thinks it could be.
“A true, substantive pro-HBCU agenda would look largely like the Obama approach: doubling the annual investment in Pell Grants, tripling investment in higher education tax benefits, making student loans cheaper to repay, and increasing institutional aid to minority-serving institutions,” Jeffries said in an e-mail. “A meaningful commitment to upward mobility through education for black Americans demands a lot more than photo ops and rhetoric. Talk is cheap. Substance, not rhetoric, will determine whether the Trump administration is truly committed to the health of HBCUs.”
Sheila Jackson Lee, a Democratic representative from Texas and a member of the House Budget Committee, is also taking a wait-and-see approach.
On the PBS website, she says of the executive order, “There is no substance at this point,” adding that she wants to see the contents of the executive order and how Congress will handle the budget process.