Although historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) and other minority-serving institutions (MSIs) are chronically underfunded, gridlock in Congress may further drain their coffers.
For more than a decade, Congress has allocated $255 million each year to MSIs under the Higher Education Act. The funding can be used for a variety of purposes, though most of it supports underrepresented students in STEM.
On Monday, however, that funding expired, largely because lawmakers are divided over how to renew it. Although it will continue through the next fiscal year, its lapse has left a cloud of uncertainty over the program's future.
That could have big implications for MSIs, which use the funding to pay for entire programs, scholarships, class materials and even faculty member salaries. HBCUs receive about $85 million, while predominantly black institutions receive $15 million.
"At HBCUs, we already don't get the level of federal funding that many other institutions do," said Michael Sorrell, president of Paul Quinn College. "Any time you look at subtracting from that already narrow pool, you impact the wellbeing and the futures of our students."
Moreover, HBCUs graduate nearly one-fourth of all African Americans with a STEM bachelor's degree, according to a recent report from UNCF. "Given the importance of the STEM fields," Sorrell added, "that level of disinvestment is just not something we as a nation can afford."
Hispanic-serving institutions, meanwhile, may have the most at stake, as they receive about $100 million from the program spread out over some 500 colleges, according to The Hechinger Report.
There are around 100 HBCUs in the U.S.
"As the nation becomes increasingly diverse and the number of our institutions continues to grow, federal funding for these schools is more important than ever," Antonio Flores, president and CEO of the Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities, said in a statement in early September.
Politics at play
Lawmakers are at odds over two bills that would continue the funding.
One version, called the FUTURE Act, would extend the funding for two years. Co-sponsored by Reps. Alma Adams, D-N.C., and Mark Walker, R-N.C., it would support the program by ending some federal payments to agencies that back student loans.
Led by the American Council on Education (ACE), several major higher education organizations backed the bill in a September letter to U.S. House of Representatives leadership, contending that it will be critical to a diverse STEM workforce.
Although the bill passed in the House, Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., blocked it from moving forward in the Senate last month, arguing that it wouldn't pass, its financing uses a "budget gimmick," and it creates a funding cliff in two years.
Alexander instead put forward his own solution to continue the funding for MSIs. Together, his package of eight bipartisan bills would make sweeping changes to higher education, including by making the $255 million in funding to MSIs permanent, reducing the number of questions on the FAFSA and allowing Pell Grants to be used for short-term programs.
He "is committed to a long-term solution, not a short-term solution that just kicks the can down the road for a couple of years," an education committee spokesperson told Education Dive in an email. His proposal would fund the changes by lifting a payment cap on income-driven student loan repayment plans.
However, the package is unlikely to get the support of Rep. Bobby Scott, D-Va., the chairman of the House's education committee, and other key lawmakers. Scott has previously indicated that he supports a comprehensive reauthorization of the Higher Education Act, rather than a piecemeal approach to changes.
Likewise, Adams objects to Alexander's bill package, in part because it "does nothing to address the rising cost of education or the student debt crisis," a spokesperson told Education Dive in an email.
What's at stake
The impasse in Congress may create uncertainty for college administrators putting together budgets for their STEM programs, said Jonathan Fansmith, director of government and public affairs at ACE, in an interview with Education Dive.
"If you're a president and you look at a statutorily defined deadline that Congress failed to act by and (see) that there's disagreement over how they're going to address it, you have to decide for the next year … are you going to continue to invest in these areas?" he asked. "No, you're not going to."
The lapse could also cause graduate students to lose out on research and drive faculty members to look for new jobs, said Harry Williams, president and CEO of the Thurgood Marshall College Fund. "There are people in roles and positions (whose) livelihoods depended on these dollars," he said. "(They're) in limbo."
North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University received the largest award in the fiscal year 2018, which it uses to support the research of more than 50 doctoral students.
Losing those funds could hurt the university, said its director of external affairs, Ray Trapp.
"Any change in funding does have major implications on our university," he said. "We would continue the program, and we would do everything we needed to do to move allocations, but it would have an effect on other programs."