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Senators discuss their proposal that would repair the infrastructure of HBCUS and


There are roughly a hundred historically Black colleges and universities in the U.S. And if you pool all their endowments together, the total is just $4 billion. To compare, the endowment of New York University alone is nearly $5 billion. This disparity in educational funding has real-world consequences and is starting to show in the aging infrastructure of HBCUs across the country.

My next two guests are proposing an infusion of money to fix that with the bipartisan IGNITE HBCU Excellence Act. I'm joined now by the bill's co-sponsor, Democratic Senator Chris Coons of Delaware, and HBCU graduate and Democratic Senator Raphael Warnock of Georgia. Welcome to both of you.

CHRIS COONS: Thanks, Ailsa.

RAPHAEL WARNOCK: Great to be with you.

CHANG: Senator Warnock, I just want to start with you because you graduated from Morehouse College back in 1991. Did I get that right?

WARNOCK: You're telling my age. That's correct.


CHANG: Well, how would you describe the current state of Morehouse's historic campus right now? Like, what do you think it needs at this moment?

WARNOCK: Well, Morehouse College, like HBCUs all across our country - and we have nine of them in Georgia - has - since 1867, Morehouse, like a lot of our schools, has been punching above its weight. These schools have been doing so very much for so many people, for so little, for so long.

CHANG: Yeah.

WARNOCK: And while that is a story that in many ways is inspiring, it is a kind of story that says, we're going to make a way out of no way, as we say in the Black church. Yet I think it would be a mistake for us as a country to think that just because these schools have always punched above their weight, they should continue to do so, that somehow they will continue to thrive in a 21st century technological digital age without the much-needed resources that they deserve.

CHANG: And what would you like specifically to see updated at Morehouse?

WARNOCK: Well, I mean, there was a recent survey of some 79 HBCUs, and 70 of those HBCUs reported that more than 40% of their building space needed repair or complete replacement. And Morehouse College is no exception to that rule. And this is why I'm proud to co-sponsor the IGNITE HBCU Excellence Act that will give schools, like Morehouse and Fort Valley down in Fort Valley, Ga., and Savannah State and Spelman College, Clark Atlanta University - all of these schools an opportunity to renovate their campuses, to provide access to campus-wide, reliable, high-speed broadband. Can you imagine an institution of higher learning in the 21st century on the wrong side of the digital divide?

CHANG: I know.

WARNOCK: That's unconscionable.

CHANG: I know.

WARNOCK: We can fix it, and we must.

CHANG: Let me ask you, Senator Coons, in addition to what Senator Warnock is describing, what do you see as the greatest needs of HBCUs overall right now?

COONS: Well, Ailsa, HBCUs across our country have long been a special, a valued and a critical pathway towards opportunity. One thing I've focused on is that roughly a third of all Black STEM graduates in the entire United States have graduated from an HBCU. And as Reverend Warnock, my colleague in the Senate, was just referencing, that's an astonishing accomplishment that they go on to such successful careers in science and technology, given the physical limitations of the campuses. In my home state, Delaware State University in Dover, Del., has an outstanding record. They've recently done - been the lead research institution on different grants from NIH, from NSF, from NASA, and they're doing it with under-resourced, outdated research equipment. We are both so excited about the IGNITE HBCU Excellence Act and the opportunity we have here to make a generational investment...

CHANG: But if I may...

COONS: ...In facilities.

CHANG: If I may ask, let's talk about real money now because, ideally, how much money do you think these HBCUs need from the federal government to make the kinds of improvements both of you are concerned about?

WARNOCK: Well, I think...

CHANG: Just give me a number.

WARNOCK: Well, you know, even as you ask the question, I think it's important for people to know and to recognize that HBCUs aren't the ones - the only schools requesting aid from the federal government.

CHANG: Right.

WARNOCK: And you shouldn't have to underscore that point, but in today's world, you do. They need resources that are equitable to the input that they - the impact that they've been making for years. They are under-resourced. They get less than their share of federal support...

CHANG: But I ask about money...

WARNOCK: ...And we're trying to correct that.

CHANG: I ask about money because earlier this year, President Biden had proposed $55 billion in funding for HBCUs and other minority-serving institutions. But then a recent version of the $3.5 trillion spending package only included about $30 billion for that purpose. And now it looks like that spending package is going to be brought down to satisfy moderate Democrats. So how optimistic are you that the spending on HBCUs will remain part of this overall spending package as negotiations continue?

COONS: Ailsa, as this package gets slimmed down because of the more modest ambition of some of our colleagues, we are going to fight tirelessly to make sure that there are robust resources for HBCU infrastructure in this bill. As it moves from maybe $3.5 trillion to $2 trillion over 10 years, the thing that we need to focus on is the policy priorities. And as Reverend Warnock just said, HBCUs have, for decades and decades, been a pathway towards opportunity, a critical investment in equity in our country. We don't mean to in any way disrespect or under-emphasize their partner institutions, Hispanic-serving institutions and tribal colleges and universities, which are also a part...


COONS: ...Of this broader effort to make an investment in institutions that are historically majority-minority-serving institutions. Obviously, I would have supported President Biden's ambitious initial number. I think it would have been a more significant and lasting investment. But we're in an environment where hanging on to this as a piece of this bill, something that we are all working very hard in our caucus...

CHANG: But do you think...

COONS: ...To get over the line, is important.

CHANG: Do you think that your Republican colleagues will lobby on behalf of this particular funding for HBCUs, given that a lot of them oppose the Democrats' overall proposal for this larger spending package?

WARNOCK: Well, at the end of the day, this Build Back Better bill will be a Democratic bill. So we're not looking for Republican votes on this. But let me point out that we have gotten some bipartisan work done in the score - on that score. Earlier this year, we passed the U.S. Innovation and Competition Act - which leaned in on R and D - the recognition that we need to position our country to compete in the geopolitical space with a rising China. We can't do that without all of our people, and so we made sure there was $750 million in that bill to shore up research activities at our HBCUs. But there's a lot more work to do. And I guess what I'm saying is, we will fight - I certainly will as an HBCU graduate - to get as many resources as we can for research, for infrastructure, in the reconciliation bill. But that's not the only bite at the apple we get. We'll continue to build on this effort.

CHANG: That's Democratic Senators Raphael Warnock of Georgia and Chris Coons of Delaware. Thanks very much to both of you.

COONS: Thank you, Ailsa.

WARNOCK: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF ALEX BARCK'S "REUNION") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ailsa Chang is an award-winning journalist who hosts All Things Considered along with Ari Shapiro, Audie Cornish, and Mary Louise Kelly. She landed in public radio after practicing law for a few years.
Jason Fuller
[Copyright 2024 NPR]
Christopher Intagliata is an editor at All Things Considered, where he writes news and edits interviews with politicians, musicians, restaurant owners, scientists and many of the other voices heard on the air.