Many HBCUs, as historically black colleges and universities are commonly known, have faced widespread financial woes recently, with some schools losing accreditation and facing plummeting enrollment.
Booker’s proposal comes at a precarious time for his presidential campaign: Despite crossing the 200,000 individual-donor threshold last month, he is still short four qualifying polls for the December debate and is in real danger of being left off the stage.
While many candidates, including Sens. Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts; former Vice President Joe Biden; and Mayor Pete Buttigieg, of South Bend, Indiana, have already rolled out proposals to invest billions into HBCUs, an anchor of Booker’s proposal is dedicating at least $40 billion to those institutions for climate change research.
Booker’s plan also calls for an additional $30 billion in grants to expand and improve science, technology, engineering and mathematics — known as STEM education — at HBCUs and minority-serving institutions, and another $30 billion in grants to upgrade facilities and infrastructure at the schools.
“HBCUs make our country stronger and more reflective of the diversity that makes us so great,” Booker said in a statement announcing the proposal. “I am here today because of the power of these institutions to uplift and bring about opportunity to black Americans.”
More than 70% of students at HBCUs and minority-serving institutions rely on Pell Grants, according to Marybeth Gasman, an education professor at Rutgers University. The Booker campaign aims to expand access to college by doubling the value of Pell Grants to $12,400 from $6,200 and require that 10% of Second Chance Pell Grant programs are given to HBCUs and minority-serving institutions.
“It’s the most aggressive plan,” Gasman said. “Of course it’s coming out after the others, so I think that’s a smart and bold move on his part.”
Indeed, discussion about the many ways the Democratic candidates have proposed to bolster HBCUs has become a central topic in the Democratic presidential primary.
Warren committed to investing a minimum of $50 billion into HBCUs, paid for by her wealth tax proposal, within her overarching plan to make public college free and to cancel most student loan debt. She said she would seek to increase the budget with her secretary of education to ensure equity in spending per student compared with other colleges in a given area.
Sanders, who also proposed universal free public college and canceling all student loan debt, pledged to make similar investments in HBCUs with a focus on educating teachers and those in the medical field. In addition, Sanders also proposed canceling the $1.6 billion in existing loan debt HBCUs face through the current Capital Financing Program.
Last month, Buttigieg wrote an op-ed in The Baltimore Sun, also promising to invest $50 billion in HBCUs.
Biden proposed more than $70 billion in investments for HBCUs, with dedicated funds to specific needs, such as $10 billion to create at least 200 new research incubators; $20 billion in high-tech labs, facilities and digital infrastructure; and another $18 billion in grants to help with tuition at four-year colleges, equivalent to up to two years of tuition per low-income and middle-class students.
Some experts, while lauding the financial scope of Booker’s plan, questioned whether focusing so much of the funding on STEM programs and climate change studies was the best solution for many of the HBCUs around the country.
“There are maybe 10 to 20 HBCUs facing being shuttered that don’t have those fields,” said Jerry Crawford II, a professor of journalism and a director of the multicultural scholars program at the University of Kansas.
Of course, underpinning all of these proposals is the difficulty in paying for them. Booker’s campaign said he would request $100 billion over 10 years from Congress in his first budget and has identified other sources of new revenue in previous policy proposals, such as undoing President Donald Trump’s tax cuts and restoring the estate tax to 2009 levels.
“If Sen. Booker could pull off this kind of investment in HBCUs,” said Gasman, “it would be historic.”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times .