HBCU Listening Sessions at White House: 'Very little listening'

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos demonstrated her lack of knowledge on the history of Historically Black Colleges and Universities after the meeting took place, calling them examples of "school choice."

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos / REUTERS

Following a meeting with leaders at Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), Education Secretary DeVos released a statement that raised questions about how much listening she did at the session.


DeVos described HBCUs as "real pioneers when it comes to school choice."

"They are living proof that when more options are provided to students, they are afforded greater access and greater quality," DeVos said.

But the history of HBCUs was not about "more options" as much as it was about the only option Blacks had for a fair education.

Marybeth Gasman, director of the University of Pennsylvania's Center for Minority-Serving Institutions, called DeVos' remarks "inaccurate and a whitewashing of U.S. history."

"I'm floored," she told POLITICO.

Austin Lane, president of Texas Southern University who attended the listening sessions, also explained why DeVos had it all wrong.

"HBCUs were created for African Americans because they had no choice and were unable to attend schools due to segregation laws," he said.

According to one president who attended the White House meeting on Monday, what was intended to be a listening session for HBCU leaders and the Trump administration turned into a very different experience.

Walter M. Kimbrough, president of Dillard University, said he was under the impression he would be meeting with members of the Trump administration, particularly Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. But Kimbrough revealed in a blog post that the agenda took a very different turn:

"That all blew up when the decision was made to take the presidents to the Oval Office to see the President. I'm still processing that entire experience. But needless to say that threw the day off and there was very little listening to HBCU presidents today- we were only given about 2 minutes each, and that was cut to one minute, so only about 7 of maybe 15 or so speakers were given an opportunity today."

DeVos' statement indicates that she may in fact not have done enough listening. She also said, "A key priority for this administration is to help develop opportunities for communities that are often the most underserved. 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."

Her statement does not suggest what those "structural reforms" will be. And while she also acknowledges "the current inequities we face in education" she does not go so far as to specify what those inequities are.

The way the events unfolded falls in line with President Donald Trump's continued disconnect with the Black community, which dates back to before he took office. While still a candidate, Trump promised to solve the problems Black Americans face living in "ghettos" at a rally in Toledo, Ohio. The word "ghetto" is widely considered an outdated term and is no longer used in mainstream media discussions. However, he cited Black Americans as living in ghettos and facing "violence, the death, the lack of education, no jobs."

But according to a recent U.S. Census report, median income for Blacks in America increased 4.1 percent from 2014 to 2015, to $36,898. Further, the number of Blacks living in poverty dropped two percentage points during the same period, from 26.2 percent to 24.1 percent.

Unemployment is also decreasing, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported. In the third quarter of 2015, 9.5 percent of Blacks were unemployed; for the third quarter of 2016, that number went down to 8.5 percent.

And educational attainment has been improving steadily. The percentage of Blacks who completed high school has increased every year since 2011; in 2015, 92.5 percent of all Blacks aged 25 to 29 had completed at least high school. The number of Blacks with a bachelor's degree has varied slightly over the past few years but has remained above 20 percent consistently since 2011.

The Origin of HBCUs

"The History of HBCUs," a segment of a documentary analyzing the history and rise of HBCUs in America, explains how HBCUs came to be:

"A paltry handful of traditionally white colleges accepted black applicants in the first part of the 19th century. And three colleges, two in Pennsylvania and one in Ohio, educated mostly black students in the mid-1800s.

"But after the Civil War, African American education blossomed. Black ministers and white philanthropists established schools all across the South to educate freed slaves. These schools, more than 100 of which are still open today, became known as historically black colleges and universities, or HBCUs.

"'They started in church basements, they started in old schoolhouses, they started in people's homes,' says Marybeth Gasman, a historian at the University of Pennsylvania who studies HBCUs. '[Former slaves] were hungry for learning … because of course, education had been kept from them.'"

Kimbrough: The Importance of the Pell Grant

Kimbrough's blog post includes the remarks he intended to give at the White House listening sessions. He emphasized the Pell Grant and how crucial it is to the success of students of color and especially ones attending HBCUs:

"The Pell Grant should be the equalizer. It serves 36% of all students, 62% of Black students, and over 70% attending HBCUs. But the education as a private good philosophy has severely limited its impact on the neediest families."

Kimbrough's three suggestions regarding the Pell Grant are:

• Raise the maximum Pell Grant, which has hit a 40-year low in purchasing power relative to college costs and index it permanently to account for inflation

• Restore year-round Pell Grants that enable students to finish college faster and with less debt;

• And remove time limits to benefit growing numbers of part time students who may require more than 12 semesters to graduate.

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