ATLANTA – As American colleges and universities gear up to meet a presidential goal to deepen the nation's pool of college grads, historically black institutions face extra pressure from threats to the financial support that many of their students depend on, the presidents of some colleges said Thursday.
About 100 presidents of historically black colleges are meeting in Atlanta and will discuss their role in President Barack Obama's call for America to have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world by 2020.
Meanwhile, Pell Grants are under fire as some members of Congress look at cutting such programs to trim the budget. Many minority students depend on the needs-based grants to stay in school.
To meet the president's goal, John Wilson, executive director of the White House Initiative on Historically Black Colleges and Universities, says the country will need to produce about 8 million more graduates — 2 million of whom need to be African-American, and 200,000 from historically black colleges.
"HBCUs and their productivity are built into the way we see this problem being solved," Wilson said. "That means we have to go from about 36,000 graduates per year to somewhere north of 50,000 a year. That is a big challenge."
Wilson said Obama is committed to preserving the Pell Grant program, which has grown from 6 million recipients when he took office to 9 million, and is expected to reach 10 million by 2012. He pointed out that while the program channels almost $1 billion into HBCUs alone, far more white students receive the grant.
"That is very significant," Wilson said. "When you defend Pell, you're defending America. This is a national thing. If the others had succeeded in going back to 2008 levels, it would've been immediately devastating."
Morgan State University President David Wilson said he has been talking with Maryland's congressional delegation to address the issue.
"If the Pell Grant is reduced in the next budget ... I can see where our enrollment at Morgan could very well suffer a huge decrease," said Wilson. He said 90 percent of his students receive a form of financial aid. "On one hand, we have a complete college America goal, and on the other hand, we are talking about not investing in those students who would be critical in the nation achieving that goal."
Kentucky State University President Mary Evan Sias agreed.
"You shouldn't have to divide and say access or success," she said. "At a time when we need to be graduating more students, we can't afford to drop the amount of money that we're giving those students."
Clark Atlanta University President Carlton Brown said the president's goal is realistic, but only under certain conditions.
"We have to understand that there has to be some investment in pre-college education and a whole new standard of outcomes," Brown said. "It's possible, but we need the political will."