Sanders’ free college proposal and HBCUs

Sanders has a solid writeup on Bernie Sanders’ plan for saving the nation’s college students trillions in student loan debt. Here’s their breakdown of the proposed “College For All” Act:

  • To receive the federal funding, states and tribes would essentially have to show the Department of Education that they will maintain higher education and need-based financial aid funding and rely less on adjunct faculty to teach classes. 
  • States and tribes would also have to show that they can cover the full cost of higher education for the poorest families, those who earn less than $25,000. For tribal colleges with at least 75 percent low-income student enrollment – students eligible for the Pell Grant –  the federal government would cover 95 percent of costs to eliminate tuition and fees. 
  • The funding would prohibit underwriting salaries and non-academic construction projects and would be awarded in a dollar-for-dollar matching program for state investments for public schools. HBCUs and minority-serving institutions (MSIs) would also qualify for this federal funding. 
  • Sanders’s proposal allocates $1.3 billion per year to reduce tuition and fees at private nonprofit universities and colleges with at least 35 percent of students from low-income households. Roughly 200 institutions would be eligible, Sanders’s office said.

A few questions 

The concept sounds untenable in the political sphere. 

With a majority of HBCUs in Republican-leaning states, what happens if state legislators refuse the federal dollars (as they did under the Affordable Care Act) for public institutions, or cut state appropriations to be filled in by federal dollars, which can change from year to year under new sessions of Congress? 

Will HBCUs have to compete for shared funding with Minority Serving Institutions – a handful of which are large state-funded institutions in Texas and California with far more stable budget outlooks than those at Black colleges in the same regions?

Will increasing Pell Grant and work-study cut into other budget lines for HBCUs, such as Upward Bound programming or STEM preparatory programs from high schools, or graduate education funding?  

If funding is attached to schools’ capacity to hire more full-time faculty and less adjuncts, will HBCUs be in an immediate position to comply with these rules, given the high percentages of undergraduate courses taught by adjunct professors? 

If more emphasis is placed on low-income students attending college, will the federal government revise its view of performance-based ranking tools like the College Scorecard to sift schools based on entering SAT scores, average year of completion and post-graduate outcomes?

After all, if HBCUs are being encouraged to enroll even more poor students than whom are already walking through the doors, then the government and accreditors must publicly account for the work that will be required to catch them up and get them out of the doors with degrees in 4-6 years.

More plans coming 

Plans from Sanders, Elizabeth Warren and others are inching towards a more comprehensive view of how to educate an increasingly under-resourced nation. 

But HBCU presidents, alumni and students have to be diligent in asking the right questions about from where exactly the money for these programs will come, and what the price may require in scaling back the HBCU mission of access and opportunity.

Jarrett L. Carter, Sr. is publisher of HBCU Digest (



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