The Critical Issues Congress Could Address for HBCUs this Year


  • For the first time in Biden’s presidency, he has to govern with a divided Congress.
  • But even in this divided Congress, lawmakers and HBCU advocates say that Democrats and Republicans alike are receptive to issues surrounding HBCUs.
  • Expect big pushes for increased mandatory funding to HBCUs, a program to provide debt-free infrastructure funding to the schools and a way to fortify schools against bomb threats.

First on the campaign trail and now in office, President Joe Biden has liked to position himself as a champion for HBCUs alongside his vice president, Howard University alum Kamala Harris. But for the first time in Biden’s presidency, he has to govern with a divided Congress. What will that mean for HBCUs?

The Plug spoke with lawmakers and HBCU advocates to see what we can expect from Congress for HBCUs this year.

Looking back

In 2022, two major bills that directed specific research funding to HBCUs made it to Biden’s desk. The first, the CHIPS and Science Act, included a provision that directed the National Science Foundation to use some of its funding to help HBCUs reach R1 status, the highest echelon of research universities. 

The second, the National Defense Authorization Act, allotted more than $816 billion to the Department of Defense and directed the DOD to set up a new effort to support STEM education at HBCUs and MSIs to help them achieve R1 status.

But Biden’s signature piece of legislation last year, the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), does not mention HBCUs once. Contrary to its name, the IRA was not just a bill to address rising prices, but was a wide-ranging law that included climate action, lowering healthcare costs and even funding the IRS.

Lodriguez Murray, Senior Vice President for Public Policy and Government Affairs at UNCF, attributes the lack of HBCU inclusion to the fact that during the pandemic, HBCUs received more than $6.5 billion in emergency funding and loan relief from the federal government, which he said has changed some lawmakers’ appetite to fund HBCUs.

“It’s perplexing to me because Congress had been the stalwart of HBCU funding prior,” Murray told The Plug. “But after the COVID funding, other than the routine funding in the annual appropriations bills, it has been much more difficult to get the authorizing committees that have worked on the eventual bipartisan [2021] infrastructure bill and the eventual Inflation Reduction Act to understand the necessity to have these institutions involved.”

Looking ahead

The river from which most issues at HBCUs flow is underfunding. Looking at just a subset of HBCUs, the 18 historically Black land-grant universities have been underfunded by at least $12.8 billion in the last thirty years, according to Forbes.

“HBCUs aren’t void of terribly talented students. As a matter of fact, we have those in droves. We’re not void of world-class faculty, administrators and committed staff people, just like every other type of higher education institution. The only thing that Historically Black Colleges and Universities have ever lacked is funding and we’ve lacked it since inception,” Murray said.

In his meetings with lawmakers and governmental agency heads to advocate for HBCUs, Murray has three clear priorities. Specifically, he is hoping that by the end of the year:

  1. The annual mandatory funding for HBCUs from the Department of Education is increased by $100 million
  2. A program has been authorized to provide debt-free infrastructure funding to HBCUs in a way where they do not have to compete against other minority-serving institutions (MSIs)
  3. HBCUs are fortified to deal not just with bomb threats, but with other threats in the future

North Carolina Democrat Rep. Alma Adams, one of the staunchest advocates of HBCUs in Congress, also plans to advocate for more funding for the schools this year.

“We will be asking for funding not only for security but for the maintenance of our schools,” Rep. Adams, who is also co-chair of the bipartisan HBCU Caucus, told The Plug. “We’re going to continue to try to make sure that we get the support for our schools that we know they need.”

One of Rep. Adams’ co-chairs of the HBCU Caucus, Delaware Democrat Sen. Chris Coons, echoed that sentiment.

“There is a lot Congress can and should focus on this term to support historically black colleges, especially by sustaining and deepening investments into campus infrastructure and expanding support for their students,” Sen. Coons said in a statement to The Plug.

And in this divided Congress, both Murray and Adams said that Democrats and Republicans alike are receptive to issues surrounding HBCUs.

Republican Sen. John Boozman represents four Arkansas HBCUs. “Historically Black Colleges and Universities in my state and across the country continue to play an important role in preparing students to enter the modern workforce. We take immense pride in their record of helping uplift underserved populations and expanding opportunity. In this Congress, I look forward to building on the work my colleagues and I have done previously to ensure these institutions grow and thrive for years to come,” Sen. Boozman said in a statement to The Plug

Murray and Adams both pointed to the 2019 FUTURE Act, which created permanent mandatory funding for HBCUs and MSIs and was passed when Republicans controlled the Senate and Democrats had the House, as a sign that impactful legislation for HBCUs can still come from a divided Congress.

“Split power encourages people to work together in ways that are often not recognized outside of DC,” Murray said.

Mirtha Donastorg

Mirtha Donastorg is a corps member with Report for America and The Plug's HBCU Innovation Editor and Senior Reporter, exploring start-up initiatives and innovations coming from Historically Black Colleges and Universities, as well as the way students are shaping the future of tech. She previously worked as an associate producer and a researcher for CNN.