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HBCUs: Honoring the Past, Shaping the Future

Secretary King:

Thank you, Marcel, for that warm introduction. Marcel and I were talking beforehand about the work that he's doing to make to make study abroad opportunities available to students at Morgan State University. I just want to celebrate and recognize the good work that Marcel is doing, and for all he's done.

I'm pleased to join you today. I'm pleased to be in a room of people who are devoting their lives to advancing opportunity for students. I want to recognize particularly our HBCU Chancellors and Presidents who are in the room. I want to thank our members of the President's Board of Advisors, people like Chairman Harvey, for their outstanding leadership. I would, of course, recognize our partners at United Negro College Fund, Michael Lomax, and Lezli Baskerville with National Association for Equal Opportunity in Higher Education, and Johnny Taylor from the Thurgood Marshall College Fund.

And, of course, I want to recognize our dedicated staff at the White House Initiative on HBCUs. I want to congratulate our ambassadors, who are—role models, and change agents—the HBCU All-Stars. As Ken said, there are 73 HBCU All-Stars spread out in 63 schools.

We have All-Stars like Danielle Ebelle, a leader in biology and physics at Virginia Union. Danielle is studying to be an oncologist, and plans to use her research skills in the lab to develop cures for cancer. There she is. [Applause.] We have All-Stars like Terrance McNeil, who is a grad student at Florida A&M, whose work in education policy will help ensure that more HBCU students have the opportunity to succeed. Do we have Terrance here? Oh, there he is. [Applause.]

The stories of the All-Stars exemplify the potential found on every HBCU campus across the country, and we are looking forward to great things from our current class of All-Stars, as we have seen extraordinary accomplishments from prior classes of HBCU All-Stars.

Now, earlier this year, when the President spoke at Howard University's commencement, the President said to the graduates, "If you had to choose a time to be, in the words of Lorraine Hansberry, 'young, gifted, and black,' in America, you would choose right now." You know that to be true.

You know that to be true, not in spite of the struggles we still face, or the heartbreaks, or injustices and inequities we see, but because we can see how far we've travelled. We can see that we all stand on the shoulders of past giants, because we want to honor their astonishing achievements by continuing to advance the cause of equity and opportunity.

We know this to be true because we have the opportunity to create the best educated, most diverse and inclusive America in history. This powerful current of excellence that the President invoked, this is the story of America's HBCUs, now well into your second century of service.

In fact, HBCU pride runs through my own family. Though I did not myself attend an HBCU, I have family members for whom Howard and Grambling made all the difference in their professional lives and journeys.

I've seen firsthand the quality experiences that students are having at HBCU campuses in my time as Secretary, from visits to Alabama A&M, to Florida A&M, to a recent visit to Tuskegee for a convening focused on STEM, and the critical role that HBCUs play in STEM education. And we know that a very large share of our undergraduate degrees have been awarded at HBCUs greatly exceeding the percentage of students who are at HBCUs. It's a powerful statement about the role that HBCUs can play in transforming the long term future of our country.

It was clear in our conversation at Tuskegee about HBCU staff leadership that HBCUs are at the cutting edge of science, technology, engineering, and math careers—working in partnership often with employers and research institutions to create a next-generation of diverse STEM leaders.

And we know that this work is critically important in the long term future of not only the country's economy, but of the country's democracy. It's why the President said early in his administration that as a goal, that we would, as a country, return to first in world on college education. We were once first. We are now 12th or 13th.

Returning to first is central to our ability to compete effectively around the world, and to ensure the vibrancy of our democracy going forward.

HBCUs have answered this call. Certainly that is true in the STEM fields, but it's true more broadly. HBCUs are preparing the next generation of leaders for the country. That's why the President has committed to an investment of billions of dollars in the success of HBCUs. Each year, the Department alone provides HBCUs with over $4 billion in funding.

In 2016, the Strengthening HBCUs program received a $17 million increase, our largest increase for the program in six years. And the President's 2017 budget maintains that increase. The staff of the initiative is also working closely with many HBCU campuses on strategies to improve completion and to improve job placement after students graduate, including close partnerships with federal agencies around the procurement of federal grants, as well as the investment of federal research dollars in HBCU campuses.

We are also focused on ensuring that no student's college dream is out of reach, and that's why the President has made investments in college access such a priority, from the over $1,000 increase in Pell Grants, to the $10,000 tax credit—the Opportunity Tax Credit. We've made important investments in college access. In fact, Pell funding for HBCUs has grown from $522 million in 2007-08 to $824 million in 2013-14.

We've also worked hard to make it simpler and faster for students to access financial aid through the FAFSA, with the early launch of the FAFSA on October 1st this year. We know that will help students better navigate the financial aid process. And we've also made it possible for folks to use prior year tax return information in the FAFSA also, simplifying the process for students and families. We've worked to keep interest rates low on student loans, and through the federal Direct Loan program have actually redirected $60 billion that would've gone to banks to students and taxpayers instead so that we can supports students with long term college success.

Through the President's My Brother's Keeper initiative, we are focused on providing supports that are essential to students' long term education success, particularly for our boys and young men of color.

And through the First Lady's Reach Higher initiative, we've focused on making sure that high school students understand what is possible with the opportunities that are available to them, and the importance of pursuing their post-secondary education.

Thanks to all these efforts, we have made real progress. There are a million more African American and Latino students in college today than when the President began. We've also seen completion improve on many campuses. In 2014, students of color earned over 270,000 more undergraduate degrees than in that first year after the President took office.

We know that HBCUs have much to teach the broader higher education community about the kinds of supports that ensure students' long term success. Earlier this year, we released a report profiling institutions that are succeeding with Pell Grant eligible students, and two of the institutions recognized there were Howard and Spelman for their work in not only enrolling Pell eligible students, but ensuring that they get through to graduation. Morehouse and North Carolina A&T were also recognized for using innovative and research-based strategies to improve completion rates.

HBCUs are also well represented among competitive grants that are focused on higher education excellence. For example, the President has an initiative called First in the World, which is focused on his goal, again, making sure that we get back to first in the world in college completion. First in the World grantees include Hampton University, and Jackson State, and Delaware State, and Spelman. Across those institutions, they've collectively received approximately $12 million to increase college readiness, persistence, and success.

HBCUs are also an important part of our Second Chance Pell initiative, which is focused on ensuring that folks who are incarcerated have access to higher education. One of the mistakes, many mistakes, in the mid-90s rush to mass incarceration was banning Pell access for folks who are incarcerated. But through our innovation authorities, departmental authority under the Higher Education Act, we now have 69 universities across the country that are able to use Pell grants to support folks who are incarcerated, in getting a meaningful second chance. Langston College, Wiley College, and Shorter College are all a part of that effort to expand opportunity.

We know that folks who are incarcerated are dramatically less likely to return to prison if they are able to pursue education while incarcerated, and better prepared to return to their families and communities successfully. And that's why the President has prioritized the Second Chance initiative, and has proposed to Congress that we restore Pell access for folks who are incarcerated because we know that they can have a transformative impact on communities across the country.

We also have prioritized investing early in students in high school having access to college opportunities. Research shows that pursuing a college degree is more likely if students earn college credits in high school. That's why we've launched a Pell dual enrollment program. Jackson State and its local school district are a part of this effort, making it easier and more affordable for high school students to complete their college degrees.

And HBCUs have been an incredible partner in our effort around STEM teachers. In particular, the President realizes that one of our challenges in ensuring diversity in the STEM field is that too often STEM opportunities are not broadly available. HBCUs have been important partners in working with local school districts to expand access to STEM opportunity. And certainly even today we're having a meeting at the White House which will talk a lot about teacher diversity.

And there is an essential role that HBCUs are playing there. We know that today the majority of the students in our public schools are students of color, but only 18% of our teachers are teachers of color, and HBCUs are disproportionally preparing teachers of color, and we need to continue to invest in the capacity of HBCUs.

We are committed to continuing to strengthen teacher preparation. We just issued new regulations on teacher preparation that reflect feedback that we received from many in the room, many institutions represented in the room. The goal of those regulations is to ensure that there's real transparency in teacher prep, and meaningful efforts in states to strengthen teacher preparation, including ensuring a diverse teacher pipeline.

But there is more to do, and the President has been very clear. We've made lots of progress over the last eight years, but there is more to do, and that is certainly true in the case of HBCUs, and our overall investments in higher education.

We've got to make sure that students are able to complete their higher education without a mountain of debt, and that they're able to do so with a meaningful credential that allows them to compete successfully in the 21st century economy.

Now, the President has proposed something called America's College Promise, and working in partnership with many in the room, that America's College Promise, offering to students the first two years at community college, or the first two years at an HBCU or Minority Serving Institution for a free or greatly reduced tuition, with the idea being that they should make at least two years of post-secondary education as automatic in our society as K-12 education.

The President has also proposed a $30 million HBCU and Minority Serving Institution Innovation for Completion Fund that will build on the kind of work that's happening through the First in the World grant for institutions that undertake initiatives that will increase completion rates, and to ensure students graduate ready for success.

The President's also asked Congress to restore funding for First in the World, and to include in First in the World a significant $30 million set aside focused on HBCUs and MSIs. The President has also proposed to Congress Summer of Pell, the idea that students would be able to use their Pell grants year-round.

We know that not having access to Pell in the summer gets in the way of students being able to stay on track for on-time completion, and we have seen some bipartisan support for Summer of Pell, and we are hopeful that when Congress comes back after the election, Summer of Pell is one of the things that we get done together.

And we also are able to announce today a new initiative that our Federal Student Aid office is launching: a multi-year effort focused on student success. This new initiative will pair guaranty agencies with Minority Serving Institutions, including HBCUs, to provide assistance to students to help meet emergency cost needs that might get in the way of their education, and also to provide additional supports for students to ensure that they get through to graduation. [Applause.]

That new initiative, I think, reflects our ongoing commitment to ensure not only that students get to college, but that they get through college, and we are providing all the necessary supports.

You know, certainly as we think about the role of HBCUs, I have to think about the broader African American narrative. Yesterday, I had the opportunity to take my daughters to the new museum on the Mall, the National Museum of African American History and Culture. If you haven't been yet, you should go as soon as possible, but there is a wait. [Laughter.]

And you should plan on—sign up now. But you should also plan on a lot of time, because there is so much to see, and I know Michael Lomax has been a leader in the development of the museum. My girls are 10 and 13, and it was an extraordinary experience to go and walk through the museum with them, and engage with them around that narrative of African-American history.

And it's important as we think about the role of HBCUs that we situate the conversation in that history. We think about the fact that our place as African Americans in American society has been transformed over the last 400 some odd years. We think about what slavery looked like, and what the museum tells so powerfully is what the conditions of slavery were like.

We see the child-sized shackles that were used for children on the auction floor, or on a slave ship. And you see the bill of sale for a human being, and explaining to my 10 or 13-year-old, who have read about these things, folks that would talk about them, but there's something different about seeing and experiencing the window those artifacts give you on those historical experiences.

And then see the role of resistance. And the museum powerfully tells the story of how the oppression that has been so much a part of our history has always occurred alongside the narrative of resistance and hope.

And HBCUs are very much a part of that. When you think about the historical significance of the founding of HBCUs in the aftermath of the Civil War, and the notion that part of how we would correct the legacy of injustice was through education. Our ability to rise from the oppression and find strength was through education. And that is still true to this day, and we turn to the museum as a reminder that history is both moving—to see the progress made, and also chilling to recognize how many of today's challenges were as true 50 years ago, or 100 years ago.

We were watching—there's a video presentation that talks about today's police brutality, and my 13-year-old turned to me as we were watching the video, and then through the museum, and seeing that conversation about interactions between the community and police over generations, and said, "How long have we been dealing with this?" And she is 13.

And so we have to see the role of HBCUs as embedded in that history as a leverage point for transforming our society for the better. Whether it's training teachers, or training the next generation of STEM leaders, HBCUs are—will be fundamental to the success and well being of not only African-American communities but of our nation.

And so today I come both to reflect on eight years of progress, but also to say we've got a lot more to do together, a lot more to build together. We certainly in the Administration believe that every moment through till January 20th we will, as the President said, run through the tape.

We're going to keep working with Congress. I'm sure it's shock to know they don't always do everything the President asks. [Laughter.] But hope springs eternal, and... [laughter.] And we will continue to work with them over the next few months as we work towards, we hope, a budget agreement to make the right investments in higher education, because those are investments for the long term future of our country.

And we have a lot of work to do, I think, as a country to ensure that we're investing in opportunity for all young people everywhere. Marcel mentioned the role that New York City schools played in my life. My mom passed when I was eight; my dad when I was 12. I am standing here only because of educators who chose to invest me. I'm standing here only because educators...[Applause.]

They could have looked at me and said, as an African American Latino young man going to New York City Public School, what chance does he have? They could've given up on me. For many of us in this room, that is true. What if those in our schools had given up on us, but they didn't.

They chose [applause]—they chose to invest and believe in me and that's what HBCUs are about. Belief and faith in every student, and that we invest in their education to provide them with the tools, that we can in fact have in front of us the next Dr. King, or the next—the next Marian Wright Edelman, or the next Ron McNair. Right there in front of us can be the next great leader if we make the right investment as adults in their future.

And so ultimately, that is the work ahead of us. Yes, there is much to celebrate about our progress, but there is so much more to do. There is much to do to ensure that HBCUs have the resources and support necessary to thrive in the next two centuries in the way that was needed so greatly to America over the last two centuries.

Together we can fulfill the Civil Rights initiative of education. We can secure a stronger future for every student in this country. And we can reach the North Star goal that the President set to be the first in the world again in college completion. And I'm confident that HBCUs will rise to that challenge as they always have, and that we can do much more together to ensure long term success to every child in every community.

Thanks so much for the opportunity.