Alabama congressional delegates join bipartisan effort to boost HBCUs

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A new bipartisan effort will bring 37 members of Congress together to promote and protect the nation’s historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs). The Bipartisan Congressional HBCU Caucus will be led by Reps. Bradley Byrne of Alabama and Alma Adams of North Carolina; Rep. Terri Sewell of Alabama and Rep. Bennie Thompson of Mississippi will be vice chairs.

In a press release issued Tuesday, Byrne said, “HBCUs deal with many of the same challenges as other higher education institutions, but they also face unique obstacles that demand special attention. Our nation’s HBCUs are evolving as they adapt to a changing workforce, and through this caucus, I look forward to helping guide the conversation about how we can best support our nation’s HBCUs.”

More than 300,000 students attend 100 historically black colleges and universities each year. The institutions produce an estimated 25 percent of African-American graduates in the STEM fields – making them a key factor in meeting workforce demands for more skills in science and technology.

However, the effort to bolster those institutions comes at a time when underfunding, institutional mismanagement, and lack of alumni support have taken their toll. Estimates put the six-year graduation rate for HBCUs at about 40 percent; the graduation rate at predominately white colleges is about 60 percent.

“HBCUs still play a vital role in educating our youth, and the primary purpose of the Bipartisan Congressional HBCU Caucus is to help these storied institutions continue to flourish,” said Rep. Sewell in a statement Wednesday. “My district is home to some of the most prominent HBCUs in the country, and I am proud to join the Bipartisan Congressional HBCU Caucus as Vice Chair.”

The Congressional Black Caucus has criticized President Obama’s relationship with HBCUs, arguing that his education policies would force many of the historic institutions into extinction.

That criticism came to a head early this year when the Obama announced a program to provide free community college for any student who desired to attend, a move that some predicted would only undermine black colleges and universities.

A prepared statement from Byrne’s office said the caucus members would “work to create a national dialogue, educating other Members of Congress and their staffs about the issues impacting HBCUs. The caucus will also work to draft meaningful bipartisan legislation to address the needs of HBCUs, and to support students and graduates of HBCUs by increasing access and career opportunities.”

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