Young, black voters deserve an honest debate about HBCUs

HBCUs have become the central battleground for testing out whether or not Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders can attract young, black voters in the South. The attention both candidates have given to HBCUs, by way of rallies and actual policy proposals, has occurred in ways the public did not see in 2008 or 2012.

The attention is a pleasant surprise.

In one way or another, Clinton and Sanders have released plans aimed at addressing the burgeoning higher education crisis facing the country. Clinton wants to inject $350 billion over 10 years to make college ‘debt-free’ for students who attend public colleges and universities. Sanders’ plan calls for spending $75 billion per year to fund ‘free tuition’ at public colleges and universities.

Last week, HBCU graduate and Clinton surrogate, Rep. Cedric Richmond (D-LA), slammed Sander’s plan for free tuition at public colleges and universities hours before a campaign rally where Sanders was set to pitch his stump speech at the historically black Morehouse College. Richmond said the plan omitted HBCUs and would leave private HBCUs “out in the cold”. Rep. Jim Clyburn (D-SC), who has endorsed Clinton ahead of the upcoming South Carolina primary, was more forceful. “I do not believe there are any free lunches,” Clyburn told MSNBC’s Tamron Hall last week. “And certainly there’s not going to be any free education.”

With only days to go before the democratic primary in his state, Clyburn has much to gain by going after Sanders’ plan. After all, South Carolina is home to six private, four-year HBCUs. But young black voters, especially those who have invested in HBCU education, deserve an honest debate.

Here’s what Sanders’ plan would do for HBCUs. There are approximately 100 HBCUs in the United States, 51 of which are public, therefore half of all HBCUs would benefit from his plan. Sanders has not been particularly diligent in pointing this out and Clinton — by way of her surrogates — are taking full advantage of this weakness.

Now, Clyburn has indicated that Sanders’ plan would decimate private HBCUs. Is this true? Sanders wants to subsidize public education, to be sure. This puts private HBCUs at a competitive disadvantage with public universities both in terms of cost and enrollment. This is basically Clyburn’s argument. Enrollment will fall at private HBCUs as students take advantage of the cost-effectiveness of free public university education. Sanders’ plan seems to counter this problem by investing $30 billion aimed at providing assistance to private HBCUs and minority-serving institutions; and by reducing interest rates for students who have to take out loans. So it’s clear that he has a plan for HBCUs in view. The real question is will this be enough to offset the incentive students will have to attend public universities? Other questions abound. Is taxing Wall-Street speculation enough to pay for free tuition and a $30 billion earmark for private HBCUs? Enrollment at HBCUs has been on a steady decline (about 9 percent of black students nationwide attend an HBCU). One of the reasons for this steady decline is that private and predominately white colleges (PWIs) have become deft at recruiting black students by providing more competitive funding packages. Both the Obama Administration and the Department of Education have tried to counter this by directing resources specifically to addressing this problem (namely through the White House Initiative on HBCUs? Would Sanders expand this program? And how would he incentivize GOP-controlled state governments to go along with such a proposal for free tuition at public universities, given that some state governments have come very close to closing public HBCUs (as was the case with South Carolina State University)?

Clyburn has also attacked Sanders’ plan on philosophical terms. No free lunch, no free education. This is all the more confusing given his ultimate support of Obama’s plan for free tuition at community colleges (Richmond also supported the plan). Obama’s proposal calls for free-tuition at community colleges and awarding grants to public and private, four-year HBCUs to offset tuition costs for low-income students for up to two years (capped off at $9,000). (Clyburn indicated in the MSNBC interview that he took his opposition of free tuition to the White House. He remains a co-sponsor on Obama’s bill). If Clyburn, and by extension Clinton, have a problem with the concept of free tuition, they need to lay out why free tuition is both practically and philosophically wrong. Why should college tuition be affordable rather than free? Why is “free tuition” the wrong approach for those who have been disproportionately left out or underrepresented in higher education?

Richmond is certainly right in saying Sanders’ plan makes no specific mention of HBCUs. This seems to be the most visible problem with Sanders. Clinton does not have this problem. Her plan is laid out on her website, Sanders’ is not. She has called for $25 billion of additional money to go to private low and middle-income students at private HBCUs, extending the American Opportunity Tax Credit for low-income families, among other things. Specifics are key in terms of setting the tone for one’s short and long term political priorities. They’re also important for demonstrating to voters that a candidate has thoughtfully engaged issues that voters care about. The thinking among Richmond and other Clinton surrogates is that if Sanders cared about HBCUs and about young black voters, he would have laid out a detailed policy plan to reflect this care. Make of that critique what you will.

Both candidates should be direct with young black voters about what they take to be the implications of their plans. This is especially the case for Sanders. He has often talked in general terms about how he would improve the lives of black people. If he has a plan, which it appears he does, he needs to be meticulous when talking to young black voters about how he will get it done. He is not having the sustained policy discussion that black voters deserve. It is frustrating that he has (so far) delivered speeches at HBCUs rather than for HBCUs. Some of Clinton’s surrogates are seizing on this and using his vagueness to reframe the debate.